Director Phillip Breen answers questions about our upcoming production of The Comedy of Errors

This production will be the first live theatre performance to welcome audiences back to the Royal Shakespeare Company, opening the newly built Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre. How do you feel about that? 

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 there’s been a sense of resetting our relationship with our audience while we’ve been away. Perhaps actors and audiences will find afresh what is wonderful and unique about the theatre and feel deeply the interdependence of play, player and audience in the same space at the same time. 

You’ve said that this play seems “entirely apt’ for this moment. What is it about the play that makes it perfect as the first show to welcome audiences back with?

This is a play in which families are reunited after a long period apart, in the open air, at sunset. 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. 

How have you managed to rehearse the show under the current restrictions?
It’s not been too bad. Rachael Barber our Covid Marshall has been strict, understanding and innovative and put us to the least inconvenience possible whilst keeping everyone safe. The whole of the RSC has been brilliant and very helpful. 

The Comedy of Errors rehearsal photos_ June 2021_2021_Photo by Pete Le May _c_ RSC_311600
Photo by Pete Le May © RSC Browse and license our images

You were meant to direct this play in 2020 in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre before the pandemic started. You will now be staging it outside in the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre. What are the challenges of staging a production outdoors? 

I mainly feel, in the circumstances, that performing it 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. 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. 

Can you tell us more about the setting of your production? How did you come up with this setting? 

As with all settings of classic plays, we wanted something that was going to liberate the play rather than straight jacket it. 

In shaping our ‘Ephesus’, we looked at Gulf states such as the UAE and Qatar where’s there’s a real world melting pot, with a high proportion of expats. Spectacular things get built almost overnight and it’s a place of curious dissociation, which felt important to the play. But Ephesus is also a place with an abbey and an Abbess, so we thought about the sounds of Istanbul, cathedral bells, muezzin, the music of the synagogue and so on… 

We also thought a contemporary setting would pose too many questions about text messages and face time. So we pushed it back in time to the last plausible moment before mass worldwide mobile communication. Which was the 1980s. This setting felt fun, and was the period of many influential comedies of our childhood.

In short there’s no precise setting, just a series of instincts and observations expressed in the design of our ‘Ephesus'. Our ‘Ephesus’ draws on the Gulf states’ economic boom, their international citizenry, and their political structures, the sounds and smells of the multi-ethinic, multi-faith world of Istanbul, all through an eighties lens of high concept comedy, slapstick, and surprise wisdom.

The Comedy of Errors rehearsal photos_ June 2021_2021_Photo by Pete Le May _c_ RSC_311748
The company have been rehearsing in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Photo by Pete Le May © RSC Browse and license our images

The play involves a number of unplanned reunions for the better. Do you yourself believe in serendipity? 

Doesn’t everyone? It’s not ‘rational’ of course. But you’re on a bit of a hiding to nothing with Shakespeare plays if you want them to be ‘rational’, in order to ‘understand’ them. Shakespeare, like all great artists, is concerned with what something feels like from inside. 

If you start looking at this play thinking that it’s ludicrous or impossible, or 'the only world in which these things happen is in a sort of cartoon universe', then it becomes like a cartoon and to my eye, you’re blinded to so much of the richness of what’s in the text. The action of the play is unlikely - highly unlikely - but I’m constantly focussing on why it’s possible. 

Anyway, how many good stories do you know that begin with “this very highly predictable thing happened to me the other day”…? This is a wonderful play, precisely because it is strange and uncanny. But as we all know, with our own mad stories of weird chance meetings involving doubles and people who oughtn’t to be together, it’s quite realistic. It’s how life IS. 

There are some who say The Comedy of Errors is a purely farcical play, best known for being short and funny. What are your thoughts on this? 

It is short and funny. No bad thing. If you take anything away from what I’m saying here, it should be that The Comedy of Errors is short and funny. But no great play is ‘purely’ anything. 

Shakespeare’s ‘comic’ characters are routinely forbidden complex psychologies. Because so often Shakespeare’s comedies are riven with strange inconsistencies; because they don’t behave like stage comedies should, they are assumed to be either full of mistakes or lesser works. I think they’re like life as it is lived. 

I suppose that is why tragedies outsell comedies by and large. The tragic view of the universe is more comforting. The world ends in a conflagration. It somehow makes sense of things and puts human beings at the centre of the narrative. It makes our actions somehow more significant. The comic view of the universe where all the molecules unhook from all the other molecules and we drift off in a post-mordial soup in a billion years time, offers little comfort. Our actions are perhaps more absurd within that context, but the vision for the universe perhaps more true. Perhaps it’s more beautiful that, despite the sheer pointlessness of our actions within the context of eternity, the very fact that we bother to do anything is rather amazing.  

How do you think or hope audiences will respond to this production? 

Positively. Laugh. Clap. I hope they’ll think differently about plays and in particular comedies. I hope it’ll make them 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 bloody 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.

The Comedy of Errors run in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre between Tuesday 13 July –  Sunday 26 September 2021.

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