All around the world in stages

A Shakespeare comedy has had an unusually extended tour before coming to London. Michael Church caught it in Lahore

When the Royal Shakespeare Company relaunches its production of The Comedy of Errors at London's Young Vic next Monday the audience will see the fruits of an unusual maturing process.

It's routine for plays to be run-in outside the metropolis before taking their chance with the critics; it's almost unheard of to begin with a regional tour, then do a season at Stratford, and then travel the globe before coming into town. Yet that is what Tim Supple and his company have done.

Supple embarked on the project with relatively modest intentions. He had wanted to find something suitable for a tour of sports and community centres, something which would draw the best out of his company of young actors. "I had been inspired by the RSC's touring Tempest, and by specialness which performances had in places which were not purpose-built theatres. I needed a play with an egalitarian casting structure - no big starring roles - and The Comedy of Errors fitted the bill perfectly."

When I first talked to him, Supple had already taken his production to central America and had watched it grow and change. He'd instructed his actors to put all thoughts of comedy out of their minds during the initial rehearsals; he'd tried to induce them to forget its usual stereotyping as mere light entertainment, and see it with fresh eyes. This process was spurred on in Mexico, for example, where the audience's response to its religious elements was intense in a way it had never been in Britain. And there they got laughs in places where English audiences had never responded.

Supple was looking forward with interest to see how it would be received on its British Council-sponsored tour of the Indian sub-continent: its debate on the wife's rights and duties in marriage would undoubtedly have a different resonance. The debate between Adriana and Luciana - one asking why her husband should enjoy rights which were denied her, the other replying that that was simply the way of the world - might, he thought, have an incendiary effect.

I caught the show in Lahore, a city made famous this year through the case of Saima Waheed, whose father had imprisoned her for daring to marry the man she loved, rather than the man he had chosen for her. And no, the heavens did not fall, the theatre did not break up in disorder: the evening was of a very different stamp.

We were in an open-air theatre-in-the-round at the Ghadhafi Stadium. the sound of the muezzin mingled mournfully with the bleeps of mobiles in the stalls. the audience was packed with student groups - from Lahore Girls' Grammar in white frocks and sashes, and girls from the Islamic university, chastely enveloped in chadors. English may have been their third language - after Punjabi and Urdu - but they missed surprisingly little in the text; a man behind me paraded his erudition with loud prompts during pauses. I had the sense that here, where several communities uneasily coexist, and where three parallel legal systems operate, this play - overshadowed from scene one by a mandatory death sentence - had something for everyone.

The biggest laughs came - surprise surprise - each time a Dromio (each of the twin protagonists has a twin servant of that name) got beaten; the audience thrilled at the sight of the (by Western standards chastely-robed) whore, and froze in embarrassment when one of the reconciled masters imprinted a kiss on his servant's mouth; the physicality of the performance got the messages powerfully across. The music - a bewitching East-West amalgam by theatre composer Adrian Lee - nudged things along with exquisite suggestiveness.

The Comedy of Errors may be one of Shakespeare's most accessible plays, but Supple would like to go back to India and Pakistan with a stronger narrative - Macbeth, say, or the Dream, or Richard III - and compare its effects in cities, villages, and slums. He'd like to involve local actors, and he'd be quite prepared to truncate the dialogue. He wants to experiment with the Bard, to see - when the mechanism is laid bare - what makes it tick. What audiences will see at the Young Vic is that mechanism after it's been repeatedly taken to bits and reassembled: worth a couple of hours of anyone's time.

Young Vic box office: 0171 928 6363

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