Lenny: Live But Not There

Comedy of Errors
National Theatre via University of Warwick

Lenny Henry’s latest go at Shakespeare was seen last night via livecast into 700 theatres around the world. Richard Lutz popped into one to take in Comedy of Errors.

Going to see Lenny Henry via a tv link is strange in a lot of different ways.

One: you are seeing a Shakespeare play from the early 1590’s- an early comedy
Two: In it is a certified Grade A performer in Lenny Henry
Three: You are really not seeing the production. But a telecast of it beamed in from the National Theatre in London.

Does it work when all these are combined? Especially when it’s a Shakespeare play that is confusing in itself- Comedy of Errors is about two sets of twins who don’t know each other exists. Plus a wife and her sister who get a bit unravelled as the wrong twin seems to walk through the door.

Well, Lenny, per usual, does make it zing along- all madcap faces, wild African accent and bowlfuls of good old fashioned slapstick. His stage wife Adriana and the sister Luciana, played by Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry, are Essex slappers of the first order, tottering around on the highest of heels festooned in the blondest of hair (or is it wigs?)

But it is really a combination one too far. It is not theatre; use of multi cameras means you get a lot of cutaways and close-ups and that means you are seeing what the livecast director thinks are the relevant shots- and sometimes they are not. Some jokes (and it is a funny play)  actually end up off screen.

But despite the large screen it is not a movie either. Being live, you get the London audience reaction immediately and that sets you in a theatre. Watching others watch a play…their play. Not yours.

You never forget you are in a cinema watching something live but very far away. But to be fair, the near sell-out at the University of Warwick Arts Centre was locked into the play. Loadsa laughs around me. It engaged the audience.

One reason might be that Lenny Henry does hold it together. He is a man with  acute comedy timing. As a lost twin mistaken for his brother, he knows what it means to be alone and confused.

His servant, also a lost twin, is a character after Beckett- not only alone and confused but like Baldrick continually set upon or simply assailed as the dupe by either of the misplaced twins.

It makes for a ribald, funny night. And for remote theatre goers, such as my friend Geraldine in the Shropshire hamlet of Aston on Clun who saw it in the village hall, a real treat. But…I’d rather have seen it live on stage right there in front of me.