Just at the moment I seem to be well and truly entrenched in the Middle East. The reason that I didn’t manage to finish Adhaf Soueif’s The Map of Love yesterday was because I was over in Stratford for a performance of The Comedy of Errors. I’m not sure whether Ephesus officially counts as the Middle East, but when it’s the location of a production directed by the Palestinian director, Amir Nizar Zuabi, it inevitably takes on overtones of modern day conflicts that cannot be ignored.
That is not to suggest that Zuabi is setting out to offer a site-specific political reading of the play. Rather, it is that as someone who has lived large parts of his life in a land where to be belong to the wrong racial, political or religious grouping can prove to be instantaneously fatal, he inevitably reads the situation in which the main characters find themselves differently to the way most of us in the West might. Not many of us, I would suggest, face the prospect of being executed by the close of day simply because we happen to have docked in the wrong city. Zuabi, on the other hand has lived with that level of uncertainty most of his life.
So, his Comedy is set in a modern day Middle Eastern port, littered with empty, sometimes disturbingly, smoking, oil barrels and peopled by a regime who are quite happy to waterboard Egeon in the hope of getting useful information out of him before they string him up (literally) and execute him. And, that such behaviour is seen as normal, if not exactly acceptable, is brought home later in the production when Adriana employs the same water based technique to extract information about her husband from her sister, Luciana. Being a Syracusian in this environment might be fatal, but being an Ephesian isn’t exactly fun and games, either. This is a Comedy of Errors with real edge to it. Oh, it didn’t lose the humour, we laughed ourselves silly, but often it was that laughter that has a large element of relief to it: relief that you are looking on and not caught up in the events provoking the mirth.
Some people have objected to such a radical updating, but for me this brought my experience closer to what I imagine that of Shakespeare’s original audience might have been. To set the play in this way enables me to have some sort of insight into what it must have been like to live in an England where airing your religious or political views could mean incarceration, torture and death. When we think of Elizabethan England we tend to think of the glories of the cultural world that have been handed down to us, but we should never forget that this was also the world of Walsingham and his team of hardened spies, several of whom were intimately involved in that very world of culture. If you were a player or a musician access to courts was easier than for others, people spoke loosely in front of you and no one questioned your return to your own country when your show was over. Living in Elizabethan England wasn’t all cakes and ale.
Of course, at the end of the production there is a measure of hope that some sort of resolution between the warring parties will be found. Egeon is saved; the brothers Antipholus are reunited, as are their servant brothers, the two Dromios. Brilliantly played by Bruce Mackinnon and Felix Hayes (who has been the outstanding actor with the company this season) they finish the play declaring that it doesn’t matter which is the elder, they will join the party walking hand in hand, not one before the other. It is a heartening moment. Perhaps peace is possible? The ordinary people seem to want it. What does it say, then, when those with the power, the representatives of state, church and big business, close the door in their faces and keep them locked out?