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Confusions in the open

Timothy Ramsden looks at two versions of The Comedy of Errors. If ever a Shakespeare play was not made for the great outdoors it's his early Plautine farce. Sudden entries, quick exists, fast patter, street and house scenes all imply tight staging. Yet the Comedy of Errors is being caught in British theatre's summer hubris and getting flung to the mercies of the weather.

Han Duijvendak directs for Lancaster Duke's in nearby Williamson Park. Habitues will know this is no common space but a big dipper of grassland with a surprise view of the courtly Ashton Memorial. This monument is the centre of gravity for Duijvendak who presents the farce as a silent movie in the making.

It's demanding on actors - there are a lot of steps up to the Memorial though old style make up will aid the identical twin routines (he is not following the recent RSC practice of one actor as both brothers). Having established the style, the play will be given free rein. The movie set-up will presumably help when visual comedy is called on to make textual problems clear (about two dozen lines are out as obscene beyond comic redemption).

"I think it's funny because of the ever more convoluted plot which draws the audience in, keeping them on the edge of their seat. But it's not what we consider verbal comedy, though there are lovely character notes. We go very hard for playing the sense. If that means playing against the verse, that's what we'll do."

Character notes have been sounding clearly through rehearsals. "Antipholus of Ephesus is a military person. Antipholus of Syracuse is a trader and traveller. His instinctive reaction is retreat, defensiveness. But Antipholus of Ephesus is aggressive, offensive. The Dromios echo their masters. Dromio of Syracuse goes for witty banter. He initiates things, cares for his master, while Dromio of Ephesus is the butt of his master's aggression."

So the echoes are in fact opposites. Each Dromio complements his master by contrast? "The first time Antipholus of Syracuse beats his Dromio, the servant's surprised. When the same master beats Dromio of Ephesus, that Dromio expects it and runs off."

Shakespeare uses the debate on there being a time for everything to keep the unexpected reactions of the "wrong" masterservant credible: "So the Dromio used to less aggression assumes he has just met his master in a bad mood. " This is vital because "the play only works if the audience knows what each character knows and why they're behaving as they do." It's the iron logic of farce. Costumes are not colour coded and deliberate initial moments of uncertainty will be cleared up by speech. Thus Duijvendak plans to create the confused world of the characters while steering us through the plot.

This keeps us sane, while each Antipholus reacts differently to apparent madness. He of Ephesus thinks everyone's mad and should be so treated; his Syracusian twin takes everything very seriously, enjoying it first then becoming frightened by the witchcraft of Ephesus and wanting to get out. There's a similarity with amnesia for these characters. "But the audience must know what's going on or the play ends up just confusion."

Silent funnies build laughs out of painful predicaments, suitable for Shakespeare's underlying serious situation - and "the bizarre Egeon frame around the action." The movie concept will also allow visual images of Egeon's opening narration.

Duijvendak finds contrast in the women too. "Adriana is assertive, malcontent, fed up with her Antipholus playing away. Luciana is pre-Kate, saying the woman's role is to do what her husband tells her to, but she asks Antipholus to spare his wife's feelings by not offending her openly. So she is active and takes the initiative, if not in a very modern way." This ties in with the women in, for example, Laurel and Hardy films.

One plan ("we'll see if it works at the preview") is to play the first scenes of act two - the women and the Syracusian pair simultaneously, twice over to a divided audience, who will sense there's action elsewhere and so take in an extra whiff of confusion.

Lancaster will play with 12 actors, which Duijvendak reckons the minimum. Oddsocks Theatre, under the guise of The Pembroke Players, have just seven, doubling both Antipholus and Dromio. Egeon goes, much of his opening speech transferring to Emilia. Drawing on commedia dell'arte style (Andy Barrow, the nearest to director this company owns to plays a pair of a Harlequin-costumed Dromios) this is an audience- friendly, improvising couple of hours that still retains much textual fidelity. Verbal ad libs soon become tedious but there's a fine flurry of visual gags in a playing area around the movable pageant wagon. The chase is built around the visitors' luggage chest which is ingeniously used for the final all-supposedly-on-stage scene. The show tends to ally each master and servant, unlike Duijvendak's opposites, with the Syracusians showing rural simplicity, the Ephesians tending to the city slicker mode. Luciana is cut, and Adriana presents herself as all oppressed women's champion. Heavy? No way. High spirited to the last, this is "good night out" theatre where the most serious issue is whether an actor will steal your ice-cream during the interval.

Duke's Playhouse at Williamson Park, Lancaster to July 8. 7.15pm. Tickets: 01524 66645.

Oddsocks tour until August 10. Details: 0181 521 4712.

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