Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus, has had a falling out with Syracuse. As a result, any visitor to his city from Syracuse must pay a fine of 1000 marks or face death, which is bad news for Syracusan merchant Egeon who is visiting Ephesus looking for his son. He did have identical twin sons and identical twin servants, but one of each was lost at sea, so the others took their names, Antipholus and Dromio, in their memory.
Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have settled in Ephesus since their shipwreck, where Antipholus has married and become a respected citizen. When an identically attired Antipholus of Syracuse arrives with his Dromio, needless to say, mayhem commences.
This play is not one of Shakespeare's great reflections on the human condition, and don't let anyone persuade you that it is a reflection on the nature of duality, of divided consciousness or anything like that. Instead, it is an unashamed comedy, usually best played with liberal doses of slapstick. Dominic Cooke's good-looking production makes full use of the the resources of the Olivier stage to develop an endlessly protean modern Ephesian cityscape, but the staging is always in danger of dwarfing the action. There are times when it works well, such as a madcap chase scene when all four twins are pursued by some mad medics round a revolving stage, but more often the scenery hogged the stage and gave no space for the humour to breathe.
Lenny Henry is a charismatic lead as Antipholus of Syracuse, and it was always going to be difficult for Chris Jarman as Antipholus of Ephesus to equal his presence, although he manages quite well. Meanwhile, I could never remember which of the Dromios was which, despite the fact that Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser, both bedecked in Arsenal shirts as Dromios of Syracuse and Ephesus respectively, didn't look particular similar. The excellent Claudie Blakely as Adriana, however, couldn't even tell her husband from his brother, and the scene where Antipholus of Syracuse is locked out his modern penthouse flat whilst Antipholus of Ephesus has been dragged to bed protesting (not too much) by Adriana is particularly well done.
There are many good points to this production. The opening scene where Egeon explains why he has two sons and two servants with the same name is usually a drag but is imaginatively dramatised as the Ephesian tenements transform into tall ships. The ambulance disgorging an army of paramedics is very funny. There is a wonderful point where you realise that music being played by some Eastern European buskers is in fact modern pop classics about madness such as Black Sabbath's Paranoid and Gnarls Barkley's Crazy sung in something like Serbo-Croat.
However, I've seen this done better. Overall it is just a bit too earnest, too over-designed to really hit the funny bone as this very modern play is more than capable of doing. The complex stage mechanics paradoxically make the action more static than it might otherwise be, and the good performances from the leads never have the space to develop into something better. The Olivier's revolving stage is a wonderful resource for any designer, but there have been times recently when it has been in danger of becoming the star of the show itself, rather than the actors and their words. The National Theatre must take care to use this resource judiciously, focus on the plays themselves and leave the staging pyrotechnics to the musicals.