It is tempting to pigeon-hole The Comedy of Errors: a farce, linguistically unsubtle, a juvenile work inspired by Plautus which needs gingering up with directorial tricks. Tim Supple, directing the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company's country-wide tour, has dispensed with all the hackneyed labels and looked at the text anew. The result is a fresh, funny production which can be appreciated by all ages from top primary up, although Supple, his assistant director Nick Cohen, and education officer Paul Reeve have decided to target workshops at A-level and BTEC students.
The story of the play has some of the elements familiar in later Shakespeare: mistaken identity, lost siblings, reconciliation and redemption in the final moments. Aegeon, a merchant, is condemned to death in Ephesus, which is at war with his home city, Syracuse. He is the father of twin sons, both named Antipholus who both have twin slaves named Dromio. His wife, one son and one slave were lost years before in a shipwreck. Needless to say, all converge on Ephesus, causing farcical complications, including marital and financial misunderstandings.
Supple says that he has found Comedy to be "a genuinely beautiful, eloquent, balanced piece of writing, a transitional play between simple set scenarios with archetypal stock characters and rich philosophical works like A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night" whose subtlety can here be glimpsed. It is, he says, about the substance of human life and is as witty, magical and lyrical as later Shakespeare. "It's just that it's a young play" - which doesn't mean you treat it less seriously or with less truth.
The result is an unexpected depth of characterisation and pathos. When the visiting Antipholus begins to fall in love with his twin's sister-in-law and she fears that this is her sister's husband behaving unfaithfully, we see real anguish in her indecisiveness. When Aegeon tells his story - usually an unwieldy piece of explication - we are drawn in. Supple says that, contrary to popular belief, it is an exciting beginning: "It is not exposition, but a magical planting. The audience must be held by that scene or there is no play."
The setting of this version is modern, more or less, "like Siena or somewhere, cultured but strange ", and Adrian Lee's exciting music, played on a variety of unfamiliar ethnic and invented instruments provides atmosphere and helps to tell the story.
Paul Reeve, travelling with the company, says that workshops should reflect the preparation which has gone into this particular production, but are not intended to mediate it. Storytelling, the rhythms of the verse, rehearsal techniques are all there, but the magic of the performance must remain intact. He nominates themes - "identity", "errors of society", "redemption" - but says that the company's education work is always meant to be a stimulus, a springboard for teachers, who are respected as creative artists.
Details of the RSC's regional tour, sponsored by NatWest, which lasts until February 1997, tel: 01789 205301. Notes and worksheets available.