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June 27, 2011 6:36 pm

The Comedy of Errors/ Richard III, Hampstead Theatre, London

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Richard Clothier (King Richard) in Richard III

Richard Clothier as Richard III at Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall is artistic director of both Hampstead Theatre and Propeller, the all-male touring ensemble, which makes the arrival of the latter at the former quite an entertaining prospect (one imagines Hall phoning himself to book the run). And entertainment is at the heart of this fine double bill. Propeller rides in like a posse, filling the theatre with joyous bonhomie for The Comedy of Errors and chilling unease for Richard III. Though hugely divergent in tone and import, both plays depict worlds in which disarray and discord rule. Hall’s exuberant and tightly focused company brings out this connection with boldly coloured productions that take the plays by the scruff of the neck.

The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s early comedy of mistaken identity, involving two sets of twins, is given a Latin-American setting here. When not in character, the actors slip into football shirts to join an onstage band, which follows the action around strumming on guitars and reacting musically to events. There is an air of fiesta and feverish dream about the whole show. Hall laces the comic narrative with music and slapstick, building to a climax that sees two of the characters confined to wheelie bins and another sprinting through the auditorium with a sparkler on his backside.

It certainly sacrifices subtlety, but this is an infectiously good-natured staging. And amid the mayhem, it still conveys the heartache underpinning the story and the cruelty behind the comedy. When Sam Swainsbury, as Antipholus of Ephesus, tries to explain the confusion that has beset him, it is both funny and painful. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart is equally fine as his twin, while David Newman also stands out as Luciana, a lady whose demure exterior conceals a talent for martial arts and a penchant for liquor.

There’s a dreamlike feel to Richard III too, but here it is a nightmare. The world in which Richard Clothier’s Richard bustles is a grim charnel house: part field hospital, part asylum (designed by Michael Pavelka) where creepy functionaries in burn masks conduct slaughter, drawing hospital screens around victims with grim purpose and hurling the results of their labour out in body bags.

Again, the production celebrates the fact that this is a youthful play: it’s vigorous, unapologetically bloodthirsty and peppered with macabre comedy. The characters wear respectable Edwardian garb, but the bloodstains around them suggest a world on the tilt. Tony Bell’s Queen Margaret makes your hair stand on end with her curses and through it all strides Clothier’s chillingly good Richard: urbane, sleek, possessed by devilish energy.

He does lose something of Richard’s charisma and this pared-down production is stronger on physicality than poetry. But nonetheless, this is a great ensemble staging, compacting grisly murder and reverent plainsong to disturbing effect.

4 stars

Hampstead Theatre

Propeller

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