James Corden was the touch paper that turned One Man, Two Guvnors into a blazing success. Now it’s Lenny Henry’s turn to ignite The Comedy of Errors and, once again, the combo works a treat. There’s something about stand-up comics performing at the National that lends a rare informality to proceedings; that transforms a potentially prosaic farce into a fluid, contemporary comedy and that turns Shakespeare into something not to be feared but gratefully and easily enjoyed.
Henry has frequently remarked that he found Shakespeare scary as a kid and I suspect this experience deeply influences his performance style. He is a man determined not to make Shakespeare intimidating. This is not to say his Othello and now, his Antipholus, are light-hearted, simplistic creations - Henry’s performances have great depth. But this emotional depth comes primarily from Henry’s natural warmth as an actor, his straightforward approach to Shakespeare’s text and his instinctive interaction with the crowd.
This is a play about losing one’s sense of self – and sanity – so it’s a massive relief and help to have such a grounded performer in the central role. Henry plays one of two twins, both called Antipholus, who were separated at birth and now, years later, are united to head-spinning, comic effect. In a typical twist, these twins also have twin servants and the baffled characters are not only seeing double, but quadruple.
Henry’s infectious incredulity – those massive eyes that role with such relish – emphasises the frantic, unfurling chaos around him. He also takes the edge off what can sometimes seem a cruel play. There’s a flurry of beatings here, as each Antipholus grows increasingly exasperated, but Henry’s fights never sting. He chases Dromio with a snooker cue, spirals around with swinging punches, grunts and groans - and yet his blows never connect.
Such lightness is not replicated in Henry’s double, Antipholus of Ephesus (Chris Jarman), who is a much thornier type. Although this allows for a complex relationship between Antipholus and his wife, Adriana, it also drains the fun right out of things. Jarman’s scenes feel unnecessarily heavy and lack the teasing element of surprise found elsewhere.
The first few scenes, too, are over-burdened. Dominic Cooke’s opening is certainly emphatic, as he gleefully manipulates Bunny Christie’s extraordinary set and visually re-enacts the storm which first tore these twins apart. Christie’s massive, creaking wooden structure rattles in the wind and, eventually, is split right in two. But the storm drowns out the words and one of the few delicate, lyrical moments in this spirited comedy is lost.
Whilst Cooke overdoes it at the start, his production also suffers from restraint. The last few scenes, as the two Antipholuses are chased around by a hoard of characters and a ‘real-live ambulance’, are thrillingly nutty but it takes a while for the madness to be unleashed. Cooke’s Ephesus could be London and, whilst the lurching prostitutes and general odd-balls add to this idea of confused identity, it sometimes feels a bit too real. The Comedy of Errors is, to me, the closest we’ll get to Shakespeare on an acid trip. Whilst Henry’s performance is ecstasy the production, for all its brilliant visual invention, is a touch too sober for me.