As The Comedy of Errors prepares to open, Director Phillip Breen talks about getting ready for a live audience with a play about families reuniting and a woman who self-isolates for 33 years.
It’d have taken a brave man to have predicted that, when we were running through the play in our Clapham rehearsal room on Friday 13 March 2020, the production would never play in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and would eventually see the light of day in a purpose-built outdoor theatre on the banks of the Avon in July 2021 - as a result of a global pandemic.
But that’s what has happened.
Daunted but excited
Of course - in the context of a very hard year for the theatre in general and our company specifically - I feel very excited about it. I know the company feels a great sense of responsibility. I know audiences are excited, as they tell me all the time.
It’s hard not to feel a little daunted, but we’ll just put one foot in front of the other, take it day by day and prepare for opening night as we always would, while also knowing this will not be like any opening night we have ever experienced. Perhaps actors and audiences will find afresh what is wonderful and unique about the theatre.
Below: Watch a timelapse video showing the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre in construction.
Photo and video by Sam Allard, Fisher Studios
Close to chaos
In The Comedy of Errors there’s a woman who’s been in self-isolation for 33 years (in a nunnery), a woman whose husband starts to act out of character and she starts to rather like it… there’s a madness to the play - all of which chimes with people’s experience of the last year or so.
It's a play in which families are reunited after a long period apart, in the open air, at sunset. The madness in the play comes from the characters’ isolation. In the final act, peace and sanity is restored because, ultimately, we don’t organically know who we are, and we only know who we are because of other people... It’s only when all of these characters see each other in the flesh and they can share their own bit of the story, that they start to feel whole again. It’s a play that posits that you can only know truth collectively; there’s no sense in being convinced of your own truth in isolation while calling the rest of the world mad.
It’s a play about the fragility of the self, how quickly and profoundly we can lose ourselves when we lose touch with people. It's about how close we all are to chaos despite our best efforts at convincing ourselves otherwise. It’s about what happens when the world stops behaving like it used to, and everything feels indefinably strange and out of kilter - it looks like the world you know, but doesn’t feel like the world you know.
A shared space
I mainly feel, in the circumstances, that performing outside is the best thing for the play and the moment. Emphasising a shared space, actors being able to see the audience as well as hearing them. Sharing the same weather and the same sky. It might make the audience feel differently about their relationship with the play when they are not sat in a dark room merely observing it, but more actively participating in it.
I hope the experience will make audiences hungry to go to theatres, because in an age where we’re all the gods of our digital realities, the theatre is one of the last places where you can imagine and dream collectively. While being God is great on some levels, it’s exhausting, and very time consuming. The great thing about being an individual is that you’re on your own, but the crap bit of being an individual is that you’re on your own. We couldn’t imagine this play on our own. We can’t make it make sense without you, the audience. You can’t do life on your own. It just doesn’t make sense.