The Comedy of Errors
and Richard III, presented by Propeller at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 19th – 30th January, 2011, and touring

Lisa Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Lisa Hopkins, "Review of The Comedy of Errors and Richard III, presented by Propeller at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 19th – 30th January, 2011, and touring". EMLS 15.3 (2011): 14.

With Richard Clothier (Duke of Ephesus, Richard III), John Dougall (Aegeon, Clarence, Lord Stanley), Dugald Bruce-Lockhart (Antipholus of Ephesus, Sir Richard Ratcliffe), Sam Swainsbury (Antipholus of Syracuse, Murderer), Richard Frame (Dromio of Syracuse, Murderer), Jon Trenchard (Dromio of Ephesus, Lady Anne), Robert Hands (Adriana, Edward IV, Richmond), David Newman (Luciana, Catesby), Wayne Cater (Balthasar, Bishop of Ely), Thomas Padden (Angelo, Hastings) Dominic Tigher (Officer, Queen Elizabeth), Kelsey Brookfield (Courtesan, Rivers, Duchess of York), Tony Bell (Pinch, Margaret) and Chris Myles (Aemilia, Buckingham).

  1. In the programme for Propeller’s joint tour of The Comedy of Errors and Richard III, Edward Hall announces the aim of the company as ‘doing the plays as we believe they should be done: with great clarity, speed and full of as much imagination in the staging as possible’.  He undersells them, because at least two other factors are also central to their style and to the huge success of this production: interaction with the audience and the creation of a musical soundscape so detailed that it becomes almost another player in the production.  There is also, of course, the small fact that they are all male.

  2. By Propeller’s own self-declared criteria, The Comedy of Errors could certainly not be faulted.  Speed, in the shape of keeping an admittedly short play down to a breathtaking two hours, was achieved by the simple expedient of all the performers maintaining a breakneck pace throughout, interval included as they marched through the auditorium collecting for Save the Children and underlining the production’s loosely Latino feel with a song whose lyrics referenced things Hispanic - ‘Julio Iglesias, / Ricky Martin, / Patatas bravas, / The second half is starting’.   Clarity was due partly to the fact that the actors playing the two sets of twins were not sufficiently similar to confuse the audience (in a deliciously economical marker of both twinhood and difference, Antipholus of Ephesus had a Jedward haircut, which Antipholus of Syracuse had been spared), but mainly to the care and skill with which the verse was spoken, with the long opening speech of Aegeon in particular a masterclass in the art of ‘talking in Shakespeare’.  Imagination in the staging never failed, as when Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus were forced into wheelie bins or when Pinch, an American evangelist who had earlier worked the audience panto-style with references to Sheffield landmarks, ran on stark naked with a lit sparkler in a very delicate position and fled through the auditorium.  Nor was Pinch’s banter the only interaction with the audience: the Officer, dressed like a Latino policeman complete with shades and baton but strongly channelling Manuel from Fawlty Towers, proposed to a woman in the front row (she said no); a beloved former colleague was singled out as someone who could never recover his hair, while a young man near him was ‘proved’ to have more wit than hair when he couldn’t name the square root of 4,009; and before the show the merchant Balthasar handed out ‘vouchers’ for ‘Dive Ephesus’ and ‘Shark Encounters’ ('we promise you come back').  The attention to music signalled in the programme by Jon Trenchard’s (Dromio of Ephesus) story about his boyhood as a cathedral chorister was exemplified in the onstage ensemble playing before the show began, the backing group (complete with angel wings) accompanying Pinch, and a host of small moments when music underscored mood or smoothed transitions.  Finally, the butchness of the ‘women’ (especially Adriana, at one point seen at her toilette complete with face mask and toe separators) added to the general hilarity of a truly glorious production of the play.    

  3. Whereas the violence in The Comedy of Errors was entirely slapstick and obviously staged, in an interview in The Times Playlist just after Comedy had opened, Edward Hall declared that ‘I’ve tried to make Richard III as gory as possible’, [1]and he has certainly succeeded: each successive death becomes progressively more grand guignol, and this time my longsuffering former colleague found his trousers spattered with blood.  Edward IV dies coughing up blood; immediately before the interval, Hastings and a chainsaw are led behind a gauze curtain which is promptly spattered with blood; the heads of the two princes (played by 30s-style mannequins) are pickled in a jar; the Duke of Buckingham’s intestines, sausage-like, are pulled out on stage; and Richard bites off Lady Anne’s finger to retrieve the massive engagement ring with which he had previously wooed her.  It was quite a surprise when Richmond (dressed entirely in white, and clutching a crucifix) merely shot Richard - but in fact this was not enough, because a sardonic laugh from the apparent corpse interrupted his closing speech and forced him to fire again.  The violence, albeit grotesque to the point of comedy, was nevertheless given a sinister edge by the fact that the entire production is set in a Victorian hospital, with characters such as the sinisterly besuited Sir Richard Ratcliffe wielding outsize syringes and victims held down on primitive trolleys.

  4. The counterpoint to the Hammer Horror narrative was the music, this time themed around English pastoral and choric motifs and provided mainly by the highly accomplished a cappella singing of the cast, who spent most of the evening offstage with their faces almost wholly obscured by white bandages.  (Like Comedy, this was above all an ensemble production, with Richard Clothier’s slickly psychopathic Richard a central but not a wholly dominating presence.)   They sang - a mediaeval lullaby as the princes died, ‘Dies irae’ as others did, drinking and maying songs as bodies were bundled into bags and brutalised - but eerily they repeatedly broke off mid-phrase, as if they were not human performers but a recording that had been suddenly switched off.  The resulting sense of the impersonal provided a chilling backdrop to the one piece of conspicuously contemporary music, a rap just after the interval about the governance of Britain and the extent to which we are colluding in it.  No wonder that this was simultaneously an uncomfortable and yet hugely energising and memorable production.


1. Laura Silverman, ‘Talking to ... Edward Hall’, The Times Playlist, 22-28 January 2011, p. 18.


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© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).