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Comedy of Errors, The (1983)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Comedy of Errors, The (1983)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 24/12/1983, colour, 115 mins
DirectorJames Cellan Jones
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerShaun Sutton
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerDon Homfray
MusicRichard Holmes

Cast: Cyril Cusack (Aegon), Charles Gray (Solinus, Duke of Ephesus), Michael Kitchen (Antipholus), Roger Daltrey (Dromio), Wendy Hiller (Aemelia), Suzanne Bertish (Adriana), Joanne Pearce (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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Although the BBC Television Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors was the fifth television broadcast of Shakespeare's early comedy, it was the first to combine a presentation of more or less the full text (cuts total fewer than fifty lines) in a production specifically conceived for the small screen. Earlier versions had either been extensively edited (BBC, tx. 16/5/1954) or adapted from existing theatrical performances (BBC, tx. 1/1/1964; ITV, tx. 20/5/1956 and 18/4/1978).

As a result, it differs in treatment, particularly in its casting of the two sets of twins. A stage production has to find similar-looking actors, but clever editing and split-screen trickery allowed Michael Kitchen (Antipholus) and Roger Daltrey (Dromio) to play both the Syracusan and Ephesian brothers, whose accidental presence in the same town triggers a chain of misunderstandings and mistaken identities. This tactic is almost too successful, as it the specific identity of each twin is often as baffling to the viewer as it is to the onscreen characters, minor costume differences generally being too subtle to register. By contrast, the more stylised and farcical 1978 Trevor Nunn production not only used four actors but deliberately exaggerated their highly individual personalities.

Susan Willis' book The BBC Shakespeare Plays (Chapel Hill, 1991) devotes a chapter to a detailed account of the production, highlighting many of director James Cellan Jones' creative decisions. He gives Aegeon (Cyril Cusack) a fuller role than Shakespeare provided for, as he mournfully wanders in and out of the action between his two major scenes, counterpointing the comedy with the parallel narrative of a man contemplating his imminent demise - though this has the inevitable side-effect of making the production seem curiously sombre. Although not as elaborate as the slapstick choreography and musical numbers of the Nunn version, a mime troupe not only provides a colourful backdrop but also livens up Aegeon's lengthy exposition by presenting a visual accompaniment, and the action takes place in a highly stylised set constructed on a giant map of the region, shown in its entirety in the opening aerial shot.

In the final analysis, The Comedy of Errors is far from a great play ("What a silly play this is", Cellan Jones apparently exclaimed at the end of editing), and this production comes nowhere near the visual, musical and conceptual inventiveness of Nunn's version - or its overall entertainment value. But in terms of textual purity, it has its own virtues.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Comedy of Errors, The (1978)
Cusack, Cyril (1910-1993)
Gray, Charles (1928-2000)
Hiller, Wendy (1912-2003)
Pitt, Ingrid (1937-2010)
Sutton, Shaun (1919-2004)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
The Comedy of Errors On Screen