How gender fluidity reveals the heart of this Comedy

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18.07.2022

Could gender fluidity reveal the heart and humanity in Shakespeare’s hilarious caper?

In the mood for laughs? Then, there couldn’t be a brighter, funnier theatrical romp than Bell Shakespeare’s new production of The Comedy of Errors. By juggling gender roles, director Janine Watson infuses Shakespeare’s shortest play with a contemporary fluidity that reveals the heart and humanity of this timeless tale.

This early work packs merriment, mistaken identities and mayhem into a single day. In true Shakespearian style, we get the plot twist up front – with a shipwreck. A family of mum Emilia, dad Egeon, their infant twins Antipholus and Antipholus and their servant twins Dromio and Dromio get separated in a mighty storm at sea.

Two sets of twins, both with the same names? You can see how quickly this case of double double trouble trouble might get confusing! Especially when at eighteen, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have disappeared on Dad, hoping to find their other halves.

Fast forward from Ancient Greece to summer in the 70s where the city of Ephesus is the neon-lit party town place to be. It’s now home to the other Antipholus and Dromio (played by Felix Jozeps and Ella Prince respectively).

After living apart for decades, Egeon of Syracuse (played by Maitland Schnaars) arrives in search of his wife, his lost twin sons and their twin servants. Only Syracusans aren’t allowed in Ephesus – on penalty of death – and Egeon is arrested. He pleads his case and after hearing his tale, Duke Solinus (played by Alex King) takes pity on Egeon, allowing him a day to raise a thousand dollar bond so he can continue his quest to reunite his family.

For director Janine Watson, ‘the 24 hour period gives you the perfect pressure cooker’. “As soon as we know Egeon has only one day to find the money to save his own life, the stakes are set absurdly high. I love allowing the chaotic story to play out, with the satisfaction of knowing there’ll be complete catharsis at the end.”

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Joseph ‘Wunujaka’ Althouse as Luciano (2022, photo by Brett Boardman)

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Ella Prince as Dromio of Ephesus and Julia Billington as Dromio of Syracuse (2022, photo by Brett Boardman)

Cue a collision of characters, coincidences and conundrums that sees Egeon and both sets of twins wind up in the same town on the same day.

Proud Tiwi/Arrernte man Joseph ‘Wunujaka’ Althouse who is cast as Luciano – a gender flipped character who was Luciana in Shakespeare’s original notes “It’s great because you’re seeing actors grapple with that confusion. So, it’s a lot of fun to play!”

Get the impression this is no straight up revival? When Janine was thinking about casting the characters, she was looking for ways to question purist interpretations. For instance, casting the Duke as a female suddenly makes a young woman the most powerful person in the play.

The gender switch works because “the character doesn’t need to be a severe old man. It needs to be someone who is charged with upholding the laws, and conventions, and morality of their country. That can be anyone. How much more interesting is it if it is a young woman who is standing there saying ‘No, these are the laws. You break them, you die’? Then we’re watching the humanity in that person get subtly shifted as their empathy is brought forward – because this play is also about empathy,” she explains.

For Julia Billington, who plays Dromio of Syracuse, gender fluidity is like a key that unlocks the truth of each character.

“I think, one of the major differences that I’m so utterly grateful to Janine for is that she has created ‘A Queer Comedy of Errors’. It has been done from a very smart, potentially political place. Part of that is the gender swapping, and part – for the Dromios specifically – lies in making them non-binary.

“It’s not like we’ve picked up a script and gone, ‘oh, this will be fun, let’s layer it on top’. It really fits, because so much of the theme and the through line of The Comedy of Errors is about searching for identity. Searching for self. Claiming non-binary-ism is about claiming your whole self. That’s the feeling of being accurately seen.”

According to Janine Watson, audiences seem ready for a different viewfinder.

“There’s a scene where Skylar as Antipholus of Syracuse is falling for Joseph as Luciano. Suddenly you hear real ripples of excitement and anticipation from audiences saying ‘ohh cool, he’s going to woo this man...’ and realising ‘ahh, I see where this is going’ ... ‘ohh, that’s fun’ and ‘that’s unexpected’. You can feel the acknowledgement in the crowd. Show people a vision of the world where people are included and accepted, and [that’s where you get true representation,” says Janine.

Janine had an underlying rationale for gender swapping Luciana to Luciano. “There’s nothing discordant about the switch. In fact, having a queer man play that role actually makes it less about the trappings of lust and bickering over the same person and more about what it feels like if you want to feel seen and you want to be loved for who you are. Ultimately, it means two men get to court each other, start a relationship, and have a happy ending together. It ends up being quite moving and meaningful.”

For all the mishaps and madness, The Comedy of Errors is about love, separation, family and connection. Of Shakespeare’s favourite themes, these are universally relatable – especially in our current climate.

“There’s a very meaningful thing that happens in the play, the estrangement and the reunion, and the beautiful mess of chaos in between that it takes for the characters to work it all out. Watching the actors play that for real is really funny. There’s no need to patch farce or slapstick over the top to get laughs. This production definitely leans into the text to find that humanity and hilarity,” explains Janine.

“Audiences will be rewarded for coming to see this version of The Comedy of Errors because it offers everything we love about theatre: comedy, tragedy, tears, laughter... and it’s fast!”.

Strap in for Shakespeare at his wry, upbeat and life-affirming best!

Content: Freya Lombardo