Q and A with Phillip Breen, director of The Comedy of Errors. RSC.

The Comedy of Errors was due to open in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in Spring 2020, but was postponed because of the pandemic. Now after a run in Stratford it will go on tour in October and November 2021.

This production comes straight from performances in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it played in an outdoor theatre.  Tell us a little bit about the journey of the show.  

The Comedy of Errors

It’d have taken a brave man to have predicted that, when we did a stagger through of the play in our Clapham rehearsal room on Friday 13th March 2020, the production would never play in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it was originally meant to open in Spring 2020.  Instead, as a result of a global pandemic, the production opened in a purpose-built outdoor theatre on the banks of the Avon in Stratford in July 2021. And now it is going on tour, which I am delighted about.

Of course – in the context of a very hard year for the theatre in general and our company specifically – I feel very excited about this show. I know the company feels a great sense of responsibility. I know audiences are excited, as they tell me all the time.

Perhaps there’s been a sense of resetting our relationship with our audience while we’ve been away. Perhaps after spending a year watching actors behind a screen mumble demotic into a camera six inches from their nose in twenty second scenes, audiences might be thrilled, as if for the first time, by once more hearing actors on a stage speak the words of the great dramatic poets. Perhaps actors and audiences will find afresh what is wonderful and unique about the theatre and feel deeply the interdependence of play, player and audience in the same space at the same time. 

The Comedy of Errors

You’ve said that this play seems “entirely apt’ for now. What is it about the play that makes it perfect as the first show the RSC is taking back on tour?

This is a play in which families are reunited after a long period apart. The madness in the play comes from the characters’ isolation.  In the final act, peace and sanity is restored because, ultimately, we don’t organically know who we are, and we only know who we are because of other people… I know that bit of myself through my girlfriend, that bit of myself through my old schoolfriend, that bit through my uncle and so on… It’s only when all of these characters see each other in the flesh and they can share their own bit of the story, that they start to feel whole again. It’s a play that posits that you can only know truth collectively, there’s no sense in being convinced of your own truth in isolation while calling the rest of the world mad.

It’s a play about the fragility of the self, how quickly and profoundly we can lose ourselves when we lose touch with people. It’s about how close we all are to chaos despite our best efforts at convincing ourselves otherwise. It’s about what happens when the world stops behaving like it used to, and everything feels indefinably strange and out of kilter – it looks like the world you know, but doesn’t feel like the world you know. 

In the play there’s a woman who’s been in self-isolation for thirty three years (in a nunnery), a woman whose husband starts to act out of character and she starts to rather like it… there’s a madness to the play – all of which chimes with people’s experience of the last year or so.

More generally, this is a play that begins with a man looking at some dark clouds and assuming there’s going to be a massive storm. So he panics. And then his wife panics. And then, because the parents panic, the kids panic and start to cry. And then everyone on the boat panics. And the man lashes himself and his family to the masts, and the sailors jump in the life boats and row away. Then the sun comes out. And there is a no storm. And the ship serenely sails in to a rock in calm seas because, out of panic, no one is driving the bloody thing. This feels like the social media age to me. People responding hysterically to cloud patterns, jumping to extreme conclusions, thereby causing panic and hysteria everywhere which stops everyone being able to see where they truly are. As Shakespeare is constantly reminding us in this play… ’the storm’s in your head, man…”. Quit wailing and lashing yourselves to the mast when there’s a few dark clouds in the sky, put your hands on the wheel and pilot the ship…

The Comedy of Errors

How did you manage to rehearse the show under the restrictions you faced at the time you were rehearsing?

It’s not been too bad. Our Covid Marshall was strict, understanding and innovative and put us to the least inconvenience possible whilst keeping everyone safe. The whole of the RSC has been brilliant and very helpful. There’s a lot to think about, of course. 

We rehearsed on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre which was exciting, and which we would never normally do.

There’s a lot we all have to learn from this period, which would be good to make permanent, such as improved hygiene and being aware of not passing on colds etc., But there’s also a lot of stuff that I hope we can unlearn as quickly as we have learned it. I never want to get used to Zoom rehearsals and ‘social distancing’ in theatres. Theatre’s a contact sport for actors and audiences. It’s why I love it. I want tears and laughter to be a cause of celebration not a cause for anxiety about errant droplets.

Can you tell us more about the setting of your production?  How did you come up with this setting? 

As with all settings of classic plays, we wanted something that was going to liberate the play rather than straight jacket it. 

We began with some of the basic facts of the play. 

This ‘Ephesus’ is a place where there is an autocratic ruler that has the power of life and death over its citizens, who can introduce laws by diktat. It’s a place where people can become rich very quickly and poor very quickly. It’s a place of class disparity, a place where reputation matters, a place with a great fear of debt. It’s a place where money talks. It’s a place of ‘east meets west’, a thriving world port, of conspicuous consumption. 

In shaping our ‘Ephesus’, we looked at Gulf states such as the UAE and Qatar where’s there’s a real world melting pot, with a high proportion of expats. Spectacular things get built almost overnight and it’s a place of curious dissociation, which felt important to the play. Snow domes in the desert, air conditioned malls serving ice cream in 50 degree heat, people appearing and disappearing, indentured slavery, and an undercurrent of autocracy.

But Ephesus is also a place with an abbey and an Abbess, so we thought about the sounds of Istanbul, cathedral bells, muezzin, the music of the synagogue and so on… 

We also thought a contemporary setting would pose too many questions about text messages and face time and so on, and how the plot would unravel if we had them. Most of the characters in this play are young and three of the main characters are actively searching for people, so we pushed it back in time to the last plausible moment before mass worldwide mobile communication. Which was the 1980s. This setting felt fun, and was the period of many influential comedies of our childhood, which have a strongly dissociative element such as Back To The Future, Trading Places and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As well as the work of David Lynch. 

‘Ephesus’ in the Elizabethan imagination was a multi-cultural society, exotic and other worldly, that received letters from St Paul about salvation. Perhaps a place that needed saving.

In short there’s no precise setting, just a series of instincts and observations expressed in the design of our ‘Ephesus’. Our ‘Ephesus’ draws on the Gulf states’ economic boom, their international citizenry, and their political structures, the sounds and smells of the multi-ethinic, multi-faith world of Istanbul, all through an eighties lens of high concept comedy, slapstick, and surprise wisdom, all inflected with the dark dissociative surrealism of David Lynch. A place of strange dreams in which you might actually go mad, and might eventually find yourself. 

The play involves a number of unplanned reunions for the better.  Do you yourself believe in serendipity?

Doesn’t everyone? On the day I met my father for the first time in twenty eight years in a London restaurant, he was sat at the next table to my professional mentor, who didn’t even live in London. I had no idea that he would be there. It wasn’t even as if I’d seen my mentor on the way to the restaurant, or he was sat in a different part of the restaurant. He was sat at the very next table. At moments like this you feel like Jung is authoring your life, or you’re being taught a lesson about the nature of fatherhood by a benevolent deity or something. But when I tell this story to folk, they all have an equivalent. A mad million to one shot involving serendipity and reunion often with a striking double image at its centre. It’s uncanny how those stories are structured. 

It’s not ‘rational’ of course. But you’re on a bit of a hiding to nothing with Shakespeare plays if you want them to be ‘rational’, in order to ‘understand’ them. Shakespeare, like all great artists, is concerned with what something feels like from inside. How life is experienced and felt. If you want concrete solutions, do a crossword or join a cult. If you want to experience some of the mystery of life and how it is experienced in realms just beyond the limit of our understanding then Shakespeare is a hell of a guide. 

If you start looking at this play thinking that it’s ludicrous or impossible, or ‘the only world in which these things happen is in a sort of cartoon universe’, then it becomes like a cartoon and to my eye, you’re blinded to so much of the richness of what’s in the text. The action of the play is unlikely – highly unlikely – but I’m constantly focussing on why it’s possible. 

Anyway, how many good stories do you know that begin with “this very highly predictable thing happened to me the other day”…? This is a wonderful play, precisely because it is strange and uncanny. But as we all know, with our own mad stories of weird chance meetings involving doubles and people who oughtn’t to be together, it’s quite realistic. It’s how life IS. 

There are some who say The Comedy of Errors is a purely farcical play, best known for being short and funny. What are your thoughts on this? 

It is short and funny. No bad thing. If you take anything away from what I’m saying here, it should be that The Comedy Of Errors is short and funny. But no great play is ‘purely’ anything. 

The under appreciation of Shakespeare’s comedies and what they are ‘best known for’ is a bit of a soapbox of mine. Particularly after doing The Merry Wives Of Windsor for the RSC a few years ago. That play and The Comedy Of Errors have quite a lot in common, in terms of how what they are ‘best known for’ clouds our ability to fully understand them. 

Let’s take Macbeth – reams of academic and psychological discourse has been written on the Macbeths and their childlessness and how this fact explains so much of the play and its action. But neither the Fords (Merry Wives) or Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus (Comedy) have children either. But because they exist in the mode of ‘comedy’ this fact is largely ignored. Stephen Greenblatt in Will In The World asserts that there are two significant exceptions to Shakespeare’s unwillingness or inability to imagine a married couple in a relationship of sustained intimacy, but they are unnervingly strange. Gertrude and Claudius and the Macbeths. I couldn’t agree less. First of all this assumes that ‘relationships of sustained intimacy’ aren’t usually ‘unnervingly strange’, and secondly it almost wilfully ignores the richness and nuance in the marriages of Shakespeare’s comedies. 

Why does this matter? 

Remarks like Greenblatt’s lead to the under consideration of the comedies by the academy, and then by directors and actors. If a moment doesn’t work in the Hamlet rehearsal room, it’s because you haven’t read it properly, if a moment doesn’t work in Comedy of Errors or Merry Wives ‘cut it’. These plays are amazing if you treat them like Hamlet, and twice as funny. 

Shakespeare’s ‘comic’ characters are routinely forbidden complex psychologies. Because so often Shakespeare’s comedies are riven with strange inconsistencies; because they don’t behave like stage comedies should, they are assumed to be either full of mistakes or lesser works. I think they’re like life as it is lived. 

I suppose that is why tragedies outsell comedies by and large. The tragic view of the universe is more comforting. The world ends in a conflagration. Or in a nuclear war. Because we’re bad. Or climate change. Because we’re bad. It somehow makes sense of things and puts human beings at the centre of the narrative. It makes our actions somehow more significant. The comic view of the universe where all the molecules unhook from all the other molecules and we drift off in a post-mordial soup in a billion years time, offers little comfort. Our actions are perhaps more absurd within that context, but the vision for the universe perhaps more true. Perhaps it’s more beautiful that, despite the sheer pointlessness of our actions within the context of eternity, the very fact that we bother to do anything is rather amazing. 

The comedies drift off in to an uncertain future with nothing resolved. The best way to respond to the uncomfortable problems that the comedies pose, it seems, is to gut  them of their humanity by turning them in to cartoons, where nobody really feels anything – Dromio of Syracuse isn’t really hurt when he’s slapped in the face by Antipholus of Syracuse, and Antipholus of Syracuse isn’t really ashamed of himself for doing it – rather than facing their more knotty multi-faceted problems of how life is lived. 

It doesn’t help us, particularly in this curiously censorious cultural moment, to have ever more simplified notions of the human condition out there in the world. While there are ‘farcical’ elements in The Comedy of Errors, those are just the things that draw you to the stage. The real business of the playis to remind us of our common humanity by showing how fragile the notion of the self is. That’s an uncomfortable idea for a society predicated on the idea of the primacy of the ‘individual’, but might offer more succour to the part of our ‘selves’ (our soul???) that knows deep down that we are not ‘individual’ but ‘dividual’, fractured, ever changing, uncertain, strangers to our ‘selves’, feeling like a ‘drop of water that in the ocean seeks another drop’, like Antipholus of Syracuse, lost to our ‘selves’ (autocorrect won’t even let me put a space between ‘our’ and ’selves’, it keeps desperately trying to put them back together, like a panicking surgeon). 

Perhaps if we can encounter that difficult idea, we might feel less mad, we might hate ourselves less for not being ‘individual’ enough and come to terms with the ‘dividual’ self. The notion that the ‘self’ is a thing you just ‘have’, like a ‘joke’ is a thing you just ‘get’ is problematic to our true understanding of Shakespeare’s comedies and, I aver, of life. Garrick once famously said “you can fool the town with tragedy, but comedy finds you out”, I’d say that was true on a number of levels.

How do you think/hope audiences will respond to this production? 

Positively. Laugh. Clap. I hope they’ll think differently about plays and in particular comedies. I hope it’ll make them hungry to go to theatres, because in an age where we’re all the Gods of our digital realities, the theatre is one of the last places where you can imagine and dream collectively. While being God is great on some levels, it’s bloody exhausting, and very time consuming. The great thing about being an individual is that you’re on your own, but the crap bit of being an individual is that you’re on your own. We couldn’t imagine this play on our own. We can’t make it make sense without you, the audience. You can’t do life on your own. It just doesn’t make sense.

The Comedy of Errors is on tour between 22 October – 6 November:


Friday 22 – Sunday 24 October 2021 

Box Office: trch.co.uk, 0115 989 5555 


Wednesday 27 – Saturday 30 October 2021 

Box Office: marlowetheatre.com, 01227 787787 


Tuesday 2 – Saturday 6 November 2021 

Box Office: bradford-theatres.co.uk, 01274 432000 


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