THE Comedy of Errors is hilarious; fortunately Jason Byrne's new production for the Abbey does not try to tinker with that simple context, even though there are some very nasty elements to the play. It opens on the soliloquy of a broken, lonely man about to be executed under some arcane trade statute which has been passed only to protect the rich and powerful merchants of Ephesus. Egeon's opening speech may be a theatrical device, a prologue to provide the background of the splitting up in infancy of the two sets of twins; yet he is no cardboard cut-out, but a man wracked by loneliness and guilt over the loss at sea of his wife and one of his baby sons, and also uneasy about his purchase of twin boys, the two Dromios, as slaves for his sons. One of the infant Dromios was also lost at sea. Shakespeare has set out a thought-provoking stall: this is high comedy, but we are not to forget the dispossession and institutionalised injustice that underpin it.
The plot is as ridiculous as it is convoluted: the exiled twin Antipholus arrives in Ephesus from Syracuse with his Dromio, and they are instantly taken to be the resident Antipholus and Dromio. Except the latter Antipholus is as unpleasant a piece of work as can be found, controlling his wife Adriana (even by Elizabethan standards) by humiliating her with his public affair with a "lady of the night" which he ensures she knows about, and preying on the unfortunate prostitute to bridge the gap in his own finances.
And as for the servant twins, their lives are as miserable as each other: beaten, abused and blamed for the peccadilloes of their separate masters, their miserable status provides the greatest comedy in the play, with the two of them confusingly inter-changeable even for the audience, until it becomes almost impossible to work out which is which, and what is their current impossible and unachievable task in trying to cover for their masters.
All naturally ends happily, but only with the intervention of the ultimate authority figure of the local duke: even at an early stage of his career, Shakespeare knew how to flatter his monarch as the harbinger of peace and calm throughout the land.
Jason Byrne has done an exuberant, affectionate job on the play, respectful without being reverential, and quite wonderfully physical and fast-moving. Charlie Bonner and Rory Nolan play Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus respectively with plenty of character shading that brings out the light of the one against the dark of the other. Peter Daly is Dromio of Syracuse, with Ciaran O'Brien as Dromio of Ephesus, and both performances are a treat of comic acting.
John Kavanagh impressively sets the dark undertone as the bereft Egeon, with Natalie Radmall-Quirke as an interestingly fraught Adriana (she's usually played as a harridan), and Susannah de Wrixon as her sister Luciana, Helen Norton as the Abbess, and Karl Shiels as Duke Solinus, all giving of their impressive best.
Dee Roycroft as Antipholus's mistress is, however, somewhat out of tune with an otherwise excellent ensemble which is completed by Simon Boyle, Joanne Crawford, John Cronin, Damian Kearney and Ger Kelly.
The cage-like impressionistic set by Anthony Lamble is absolutely in tune with the interpretation, lighting is by Paul Keogan and the lively choreography is by Ella Clarke.