Emmanuel College Master's Garden, 23/8/2009
Another day, another problem Shakespeare comedy. The problem in this case - the reason why this one doesn't get produced so much (I'd never seen it live before) - being of course that some people aren't sure if it's actually any good. It barely even makes it to the dictionary of quotations, after all. But the company from Shakespeare's Globe have not only tackled it; they've taken it on tour, in an authentic-practices sort of approach with a booth stage (a rectangular canvas box forming the back of the small, low temporary stage) and a cut-back cast engaging in much doubling up - albeit with costumes that mix modern dress and vaguely period-eastern-Mediterranean style (to go with some Arabic-style clarinet-based music, hookah pipes, and so on).
And hey, they had me convinced by the end that this early Shakespeare piece is worth seeing occasionally. It may be a farce that's labeled as a Comedy, but it turns out that Shakespeare could orchestrate a pretty decent farce when he wanted to (okay, borrowing hard from three different Latin sources); it's not Feydeau - a lot depends on someone who's spent several years searching for his long-lost twin brother not having the faintest idea why a town full of people might be mistaking him for someone else - but it raises quite a few laughs and has at least a touch of poignancy.
Not that this production tried too hard for the last, after an affecting opening scene. The doubling up included several major parts and both the pairs of twins who are central to the plot, which worked perfectly well until the climax, when they're finally supposed to be on stage together - and so the final scene saw life-sized cardboard cut-outs of two of the cast wheeled on to act as place-holders, while another actor, doubling the Duke and Angelo, spent a lot of time switching postures while talking to himself. The cast were slick enough to make this very funny, but it couldn't rise above the level of mock-amateur slapstick. Still, think of a touring Elizabethan theatre company, playing something originally written to entertain a bunch of drunken lawyers to a random audience of unlettered provincials, working with the resources they had available, and this was probably about right.
Mind you, on those terms, playing it in a University garden isn't strictly right - apparently, the University banned theatre companies. But on a nice day, with a picnic blanket and a production that was clever enough to make itself look convincingly rough-and-ready, who cares?