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Comedy of Errors, The (1978)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Comedy of Errors, The (1978)
ATV for ITV, tx. 18/4/1978, colour, 132 mins
Directed byPhilip Casson
Production CompanyATV
ProducerPeter Roden
Television conceptionTrevor Nunn
Original playWilliam Shakespeare
MusicGuy Woolfenden

Cast: Brian Coburn (Solinus); Griffith Jones (Aegeon); Roger Rees, Mike Gwilym (the Antipholi); Michael Williams, Nickolas Grace (the Dromios); Judi Dench (Adriana); Francesca Annis (Luciana)

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Comical misunderstandings arise when two sets of twins, unaware of their other halves' existence, inadvertently end up in the same town.

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As with ATV's earlier Antony and Cleopatra (tx. 28/7/1974), The Comedy of Errors was derived from an existing Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Trevor Nunn - though this time round the original text had been comprehensively reworked as a slapstick comedy musical. Although not quite as extreme a reinvention of the play as Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's 1938 musical The Boys From Syracuse - the core text is at least by Shakespeare - considerable amounts of material have been added, both in the form of original songs (music by in-house RSC composer Guy Woolfenden; lyrics by Nunn himself) and Gillian Lynne's elaborately choreographed song-and-dance-and-slapstick routines.

The characters, too, were deliberately caricatured - Duke Solinus comes across as a tinpot dictator in the Pinochet mould, which exaggerates the arbitrary callousness of Aegeon's death sentence. The two sets of twins, the Antipholi and the Dromios, while physically similar, are quite different in terms of personality - unlike the later BBC version (tx, 24/12/1983), there is never any danger of the audience mixing them up, regardless of how much confusion they sow on stage.

"On stage" is very much the appropriate term here, as the television version (directed by Philip Casson with Nunn credited with the small-screen conception) very much plays to the production's virtues. Not only is no attempt made at disguising the piece's theatrical origins, but there are frequent cutaways to the audience (the camera enters the theatre alongside them), whose presence is in any case unmistakable throughout from their audible reaction: Shakespeare with a laughter track.

But this almost Brechtian approach suits the material very well: Nunn's highly stylised treatment might otherwise have had difficulty transferring to what was still widely seen as a more realistic medium. Casson's direction is quite different from his approach to Nunn's RSC Macbeth, which ITV would screen less than a year later - while the latter piece was made up of tight, claustrophobic close-ups, here he favours wide shots revealing the whole stage and heightening the artifice.

But amidst the knockabout farce, there's a strong emotional undercurrent provided by Francesca Annis's Luciana and Judi Dench's Adriana, whose exasperation with their menfolk is betrayed by their every gesture. For all his lighthearted approach, Nunn never lets us forget that all Shakespeare's plays, even comparatively trivial ones like this, nonetheless delve into the deepest human truths.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Comedy of Errors, The (1983)
Dench, Judi (1934-)
Shakespeare on ITV
Shakespeare on Television
The Comedy of Errors On Screen