The Critics: Theatre - All the Globe's a stage

Julius Caesar Globe, London Three Sisters Whitehall, London The Death of Cool Hampstead, London
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The Independent Culture
For Shakespeare trainspotters, there is a new book out this month that is, quite simply, anorak heaven. In Shakespeare's Mystery Play, the Oxford academic Steve Sohmer uses charts, diagrams and calendars to argue, through a close study of equinoxes, tides, astrology, religious festivals, word clusters and references to contemporary events, that Julius Caesar was the first play to be performed when the Globe opened in 1599.

There are those who favour Henry V, with its reference to "this wooden O"; and those (equally serious about Shakespeare) who couldn't care less. But the Globe's artistic director Mark Rylance is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first production at the Globe by directing an all-male production of Julius Caesar.

No, not directing exactly: in a characteristically quirky gesture, Rylance has appointed himself "Master of the Play", while Giles Block gets the job of "Master of the Verse" (congratulations to them both). Between them, they focus, very effectively, on the clarity of the narrative and the verse-speaking. In its own way, this production makes as persuasive a case as Sohmer's remarkable book. Julius Caesar's perennial appeal (particularly as a school play) lies in its oratory. It would be hard to imagine this working better than in a packed Elizabethan theatre with hundreds of members of the audience standing at the actors' feet. The cast wear doublets, hoses and hats and (later) plumed helmets and shining armour.

These are Elizabethans playing Romans. In 1599, naturally, Elizabethan clothes were trendy enough, so Rylance has plebians emerge from the yard and join in the action wearing baseball caps and trainers. One leaps on to the stage, rests his can of Stella on the ledge of the pillar, delivers a speech, picks up his beer and jumps back into the crowd.

There's no dull literalness in the staging. Night scenes take place in daylight. Men play women. When Brutus embraces his wife, Portia, we watch a black male actor embrace a white male one. In a paradoxical way, the scene convinces us more successfully as it liberates itself from the cloying phoniness of naturalism. The artifice is blatant and unapologetic: the main event has to take place within an imaginative world that - if this doesn't sound too pretentious - relies as much on the participation of the audience as it does on the actors. Rylance's production forcefully reminds us of how quick, sophisticated and multi-levelled Elizabethan drama had to be.

In this original context, many lines receive an illuminating spin. Paul Shelley's genial Caesar hears a man shout out from the audience. Richard Bremmer's witty, vulpine Cassius summons him "to come from the throng". As he squeezes through the closed ranks of the audience, the soothsayer claims "the street is narrow". When Cassius asserts that Caesar "doth bestride the narrow world/ Like a Colossus," he moves beneath the two pillars at the front as if they had prompted the image.

Our minds are constantly double-tracking: we're in the scene and outside it. After Caesar's murder, Cassius shares a joke with the audience: "How many ages hence/ Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,/ In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!" When Mark Lewis Jones's powerful Mark Antony has finished whipping up the rabble to revenge Caesar's death, he stands at the front and heaves a sigh. The audience laugh. The ironies and the knowingness - vividly present in this rapid makeshift context - are integral to the play's liveliness.

And this is where Rylance is on to something that justifies the whole Globe project. When a production works here, Rylance can dismiss all sneers about theme-park theatre. It's as if, inside this particular building and presented in a certain way, the cast luck into a forgotten radio frequency. When they hit on this waveband - as they do here - Shakespeare seems closer than ever.

In the second play of his Oxford Stage Company season, Dominic Dromgoole brings Chekhov's Three Sisters to the former home of trouser-dropping farce. If you want to see young talent - before they are famous - then go to the Whitehall.

Dromgoole has assembled a fascinating cast: Claudie Blakley plays the middle sister, Masha, with a statuesque stillness and facial placidity that belies the tormented acidity of her remarks. Her voice carries more than a hint of Judi Dench. Last Christmas, I nominated Kelly Reilly as newcomer of the year, for her small, eye-catching role in London Cuckolds. A quicksilver, if light-voiced, Irina, she darts round the Prozorov drawing room, tugging and pointing and teasing. Paul Ritter turns the schoolmaster Kulygin into a fearless comic turn: a fussy, precise figure, his bright explicatory tones kept reminding me of Tony Blair. Tom Smith's clipped Tuzenbakh - constantly aware of his own absurdity - is another clever portrait. Dromgoole stages the action with a lovely sense of the physical intimacy between the characters. There's a good deal of insight. This Three Sisters could be richer and quicker and with a surer sense of social distinctions. But that may come.

There's a meagre new play at Hampstead about a young man who makes money with a social security scam in which he impersonates other people and collects their benefits. The Death of Cool by Alan Pollock is self-consciously modish, packed with short inconsequential scenes that seem to date even as we are watching them. Director Gemma Bodinetz punctuates the action with short bursts of music. Quite soon, I was hoping for shorter scenes and longer bursts of music.

As the extravagant crook, the talented Colin Tierney gets through enough physical mannerisms to fill out half-a-dozen roles. A beaky, nervy figure, he wags his head, wags his finger and wags his tongue. Susannah Doyle (from Drop the Dead Donkey) plays his friend Lisa, who spends most of the evening biting her lower lip. Georgia Mackenzie has the most fun - and is the most funny - as Tara, the posh would-be actress. But the author's satire at the expense of the more desperate end of profit-share theatre tempts fate.

'Julius Caesar': Globe, SE1 (0171 401 9919) in rep to 21 Sept. 'Three Sisters': Whitehall, SW1 (0171 369 1735) to 3 July. 'Death of Cool': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301) to 19 June