Dominic Hill on The Comedy of Errors: 'A perfect little gem'

The Comedy of Errors is sometimes seen as one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, but to director Dominic Hill, re-staging a Covid-compromised 2021 production for Glasgow’s Citz, it’s ‘beautifully written, concise and genuinely funny.’ Interview by Mark Fisher
The Comedy of Errors in rehearsal PIC: Alex BradyThe Comedy of Errors in rehearsal PIC: Alex Brady
The Comedy of Errors in rehearsal PIC: Alex Brady

You can't fault Dominic Hill for perseverance. Last summer, the artistic director of Glasgow's Citizens Theatre staged The Comedy Of Errors as part of Scottish Opera's Live at No 40 Festival. It ran long enough to pick up a couple of five-star reviews, but only after disaster had struck. Before the show had even opened, some members of the company tested positive for Covid and five performances had to be cancelled, amounting to half the intended run.

If you managed to see it, you were one of the select few. That was a shame, because Shakespeare's comedy went down a storm. Proving you can't keep a good show down, Hill is having a second bash at it – this time with a month-long tour. After another year of uncertainty, he reckons the mood is still right for a breezy comedy about mistaken identity.

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"It felt like all the reasons for doing it were still relevant," he says. "Creating something joyful and celebratory – the world doesn't seem that different from a year ago. We're trying to find it anew while knowing there are things that worked a year ago that we want to keep."

First seen in 1594 – one of the earlier works in the playwright's career – The Comedy Of Errors is about two sets of twins who, having been separated as children, cause confusion, jealousy and even death threats when fate brings them together again.

Two of the identical brothers are the sons of Adriana and her husband Egeon, a merchant. He has provided them with another set of twins as their servants. After an accident at sea, each brother and his servant is torn apart from the other. Only years later do they return to each other's orbit.

Hill cements the confusion by casting Michael Guest as the two sons, both called Antipholus, and Angus Miller as the two servants, both called Dromio. "The Dromios are wonderful," says Hill. "It's interesting how Shakespeare forefronts the working people, the servants who are mocking their masters. And there is something archetypally amusing about that mixed-up identity."

Shakespeare took inspiration from The Menaechmi by Plautus, but his innovation was to add the second set of twins, doubling the potential for laughter as he went. When Egeon, played by John Macaulay, finds himself sentenced to death for straying into the city of Ephesus where, as a native of Syracuse, he is forbidden, it is only the coincidence of his sons – and their servants – also being there that keeps him alive.

"It's light, fun and frothy," says Hill. And part of the fun lies in the production's physicality – even more so this year, when there are no restrictions on how close the actors can get to each other. "It's a collaborative show," he says. "I work with fantastic movement directors, Lucien Lindsay-MacDougall and Benedicte Seierup, and they are part of the feel of the show, which is physical, silly and slapstick. The play is a farce and physicality is part and parcel of the way it operates. One of the joys this year is saying, 'Phew, you don't have to stay a meter apart.' We can go back to what feels so innately part of theatre, which is human beings being able to physically interact."

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In his ten years as artistic director of the Citizens – and before that in his time at the Traverse and Dundee Rep – Hill has been associated with the weightier end of the dramatic canon. He has staged Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment and Samiel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, not to mention Shakespeare's tragedies of Hamlet and King Lear. Even his Christmas stagings of Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio have leaned into the darker corners of those fables. To direct such a confection as The Comedy Of Errors might not be characteristic, but Hill loves the fun as well as the rigour needed to make it work.

"I've done an awful lot of comedies!" he protests. "In some ways, this is closer to Christmas. I wouldn't say it's pantomime, but it has that sort of anarchy to it. We break the forth wall and it has a lack of restraint."

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He also feels strongly that the play is too often unfairly dismissed. Yes, it is from the formative part of Shakespeare's career but that does not diminish its richness. "It's an extraordinarily brilliant play," he says. "It's a perfect little gem of a piece. People see it as lesser because it is early and it's a farce, but it is beautifully written, short, concise and genuinely funny. There are not many great Shakespeare women, but Adriana is an extraordinary, modern creation and people don't talk about her enough. If you're thinking of me as a serious director, it's a serious piece of work, for all its frivolity."

All this is keeping the mood buoyant in the Citizens company as it looks forward to 2024 when the delayed refurbishment of its Gorbals theatre is due to be completed. After a spell taking residence at the Tramway, it is coming closer to home in order to reconnect with audiences, old and new. "We're launching a programme of homecoming work and embedding ourselves in the community," he says, eyeing up local venues for the Christmas show. "We've been out for longer than we planned and a whole new housing community has been built in the Gorbals since we closed. The wasteland opposite the Citz is brand-new housing, so we'll be re-opening in a brand-new community."

The Comedy of Errors is at the Beacon, Greenock, 19–20 August, Scottish Opera's Production Studios, 26 August–3 September and Perth Theatre, 7–17 September,