Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Gabbled and Garbled

The Comedy of Errors is full of watery references- or perhaps 'overflowing with' would be the more accurate phrase. The hinging event that sets off all the rest of the play's action occurs on "the always wind-obeying deep" and from then on the characters' thoughts seem to turn constantly toward the sea and things fluid.

Almost as soon as he appears, one of the main characters tells us:

"I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop".

Shortly afterwards another describes men as:

"Lords of the wide world and wild watery seas", 

and goes on to admonish the person she thinks is her husband in similarly aquatic terms:

"Ah! do not tear away thyself from me,
For know, my love, as easy may'st thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again ..."

Her interlocutor also has a head full of oceanic thoughts. He addresses the object of his affection thus:

O! train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears:
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote:
Spread o'er the silver waves they golden hairs...
...Love, being light, be drowned if she sink."

and resolves to "stop mine ears against the mermaid's song".

Even in the most slapstick comic sections, Noah's flood and Spanish armadas are invoked. The fluidity of identity that is the crux of the plot is echoed time and time again in this way.

Not that you'd ever have noticed, had you gone to the Bell Shakespeare's recent production of The Comedy of Errors. Nor would you have picked up any of the phrases from the script that have now passed into the language - "he must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil"; "neither rhyme nor reason" - nor the really beautiful lines - "Far from her nest, the lapwing cries away"; "...moody and dull melancholy/Kinsman to grim and comfortless despair" - nor the prefiguring, in this speech: "A wretched soul, bruised with adversity/We bid be quiet when we hear it cry; But were we burden'd with like weight of pain/As much or more we should ourselves complain", of a theme taken up in Much Ado About Nothing ("'t is all men's office to speak patience/To those that wring under the laid of sorrow") and in this speech , "Are you a god? would you create me new?", of Miranda in The Tempest, ("O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!/How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world"). Instead of playing the characters straight, so that the audience might feel for them, even as they laughed, the actors played them as unappealing idiots and, perhaps because this was an embarrassing way to perform, they played them at a garbled gabble, so that it was virtually impossible to pick up even scraps of the actual words.

I hate being so critical. After all, the Bell Shakespeare Company is such a good, admirable and worthy idea. The trouble is that so often in practice its productions fall short of the ideal. Usually, they are at least entertaining - although, for me in this particular case, even entertainment wasn't achieved - but as yet I have never seen a Bell performance that really demonstrates the important thing about Shakespeare, which is, as far as I'm concerned at least, his use of language. Instead, often - and particularly in this case - the Bell company seems to be intent on trying to beguile the audience with bells and whistles and props and sight gags, as if they are somehow embarrassed of the beauty and insight of the plays themselves. For more detail on this particular production, go here.

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