A Comedy For Our Time

Phillip Breen chats to What’s On about The Comedy Of Errors opening at the RSC's new outdoor space.

Bringing together farce and humour in a terrific tale of mistaken identity, The Comedy Of Errors - one of Shakespeare’s earliest works - challenges its audiences on the subjects of love and the self. And whilst never fully providing answers to the questions it poses, the play nonetheless ably reflects its author’s deep understanding of human nature.

Phillip Breen, who helms the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest version of the play, believes that it’s the lack of definitive answers and endings in Shakespeare’s comedies that makes them less favoured by the masses. But this, he says, is the exact reason why we should be paying more attention to them...

“In tragedy, someone makes a mistake then dies, so it’s all wound up at the end. Tragedies give people answers. One of the problems of comedy is that they don’t really end - and the ending they do come to is ambiguous and tricky. With no direct, definite moral message or ending, comedies are much more like real life and pose difficult problems. Shakespeare’s comedies are so great because they’re transgressive and say difficult things about human nature, who we are and our relationships. But people are much more comforted by a tragic end to the universe - whether that be nuclear war, climate change, or an asteroid hitting the earth - and less comforted by, over the course of one billion years, all the molecules just unhooking and us floating off into this post-mordial soup. But being comforted by the idea of tragedy doesn’t make the plays themselves better or worse.

“The way I see it with Shakespeare is that there are plays that are considered to be popular now - but that wasn’t always the case. Even Shakespeare in general wasn’t popular and went out of fashion for 200-odd years until he was revived by the Victorians. Only 100 years ago, he had nowhere near the ubiquity he has now. Karl Marx wrote that there was more life in Act One of The Merry Wives Of Windsor than there was in the entirety of German literature. Giuseppe Verdi could have chosen any work to make into his final opera, but he chose to make Falstaff based on The Merry Wives Of Windsor. I’m interested not just in which plays are popular at a certain time, but also which plays aren’t so popular, and what that says about us. I think these more knotty comedies pose really interesting questions to audiences. I’m interested in why certain plays get done and why others don’t.” 

Phillip believes The Comedy Of Errors is woefully underappreciated. Indeed, it’s viewed by many as proof that even the bard himself could have an off-day.

“A lot of Shakespeare’s plays have certain reputations - often ones that are unhelpful. I don’t think people should be fooled by the reputation of The Comedy Of Errors - light, accessible, short, funny - because it’s all those things but also an incredibly profound play, particularly for our times. It’s about the nature of the self, who we are, and the soul. It’s one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays and maps out a lot of the themes that he then uses throughout his career; things that he encounters for the first time, it seems, and then carries forward as inspiration for his other plays. This is the first time we encounter twins in Shakespeare’s work. This is the first time we get one of those great Act Five scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies, where all the strands come together in that really satisfying Shakespearean way. We have so many sketches for future plays and productions in The Comedy Of Errors, from The Merry Wives Of Windsor to Macbeth. 

“It’s a play that’s very admired by real Shakespeare-heads. A lot of academics who really know Shakespeare think this is the place to start if you’re a fan of his work. So many people rate the play - and it’s not him having an ‘off day’ because it’s not like Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello. Because this is a comedy and all the characters have northern accents, those characters have often been forbidden from having complex psychologies, as opposed to if they were princes in a tragedy. If something doesn’t work in Hamlet, a director assumes it’s their fault. If something doesn’t work in The Comedy Of Errors, it gets cut.

Again, that’s not actually the fault of the play itself, but of the unearned reputation of others. It’s actually a major piece of work and a great flower in the canon. It’s funny, truthful, accessible, and has some really interesting things to say about the way we live now - both in pandemic times and the digital age. It’s deep, and leaves a lasting mark on you.”

The humour is, of course, a great draw too.

“One of the best things about the play is that none of the characters think they’re in The Comedy Of Errors. All the characters are being absolutely tortured. That’s kind of fun, both for the audience and for the actors to play. The driving force of something like Fawlty Towers is a sense of sadism towards the main character, which The Comedy Of Errors definitely has. Trading Places, the Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd film, has a lot of The Comedy Of Errors in it, too. Comedy is an extraordinarily funny play because it’s completely bonkers but beautifully plotted. Modern sitcoms are dealing in types and tropes from comedies that have been around for a very long time, so they’re things everyone can relate to. 

“A lot of the plot is both funny and sad at the same time. The great comedies of any age always have that interplay between laughter and tears. We remember the end of Only Fools And Horses. We remember Gavin And Stacey. Everyone goes mad about The Royle Family, but the episode we really remember is the birth of baby David on the bathroom floor. We’re comedians at heart, but it’s often much more gratifying when audiences cry during a comedy. When done properly, it’s like nothing else.”

And why will The Comedy Of Errors resonate with its audiences?

“This play follows the seven hours in which two sets of twins, separated at birth, find each other through various situations of mistaken identity. Shakespeare discusses the idea of knowing yourself through others, which is the brilliant and profound message at the heart of The Comedy Of Errors; one that I think will really resonate with the times. The play stops because they all find each other. And these people become sane through their relationships with others; by standing with other people, sharing the same space and talking. 

“Plays change with every tick of the clock, and that’s the beauty of them. They change depending on what’s happened in the news that day. Every single night without fail, a play changes. But The Comedy Of Errors feels very apt at the moment. We can only make meaning through fully interacting with other people and shared imagination. It’s hard to will that into being online, however much we try.

“Increasingly I feel an evangelical zeal from working in the theatre, because it’s one of the last places that people get together to meditate on a poem; to think about something that’s difficult and knotty, but in a collective way. The great thing about great art is that it makes you feel less alone in the world. It gives you ultra-specificity of a feeling or aspect of life to consider, but in a universal way - and suddenly you feel less alone and much more forgiving. To go and see ourselves on the stage as we are, rather than what we want to be, is great. Looking at humanity as we are - flawed, longing, complex, happy and sad, all at the same time - is relatable. You clap really hard at the end and smile at people on your way out, as if to say, ‘Wasn’t that great?’. The opportunities to do those sorts of things are few and far between. Collective imagination, collective consciousness and sympathy are things that only theatre can give us to such an extent.”

It’s that collective experience and imagination that will bring people back to the theatre time and time again…

“We’ve been telling stories for as long as there’s been civilisation, and we’ve been making theatre since the time of the Ancient Greeks. This isn’t to make light of Covid. It’s been incredibly difficult for professionals working in the business, and for our audiences who love to see our work. We don’t take any of that for granted, and we know people are absolutely screaming to get back out there and come and see us. Historically, though, there have been countless hard times for theatres. Even in Shakespeare’s own career he was able to write a good chunk of his sonnets, King Lear and, probably, Measure For Measure, in times of plague. These times sometimes lead to new flowerings. I think the idea of having 500 people in one place - watching one thing and experiencing it all together - has been around for as long as there have been people. It’ll be going on for the rest of time. I’ve got no worries whatsoever about the theatre’s ability to bounce back.” 

The Comedy Of Errors shows at the RSC’s new Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre which is located in the Swan Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon. The production opens on Tuesday 13 July and runs until Sunday 26 September

Interview by Lauren Cole