Theatre: Henry V / The Winter's Tale The Globe, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At the official opening of the reconstructed Globe Theatre, the drumming cast of Henry V moved forward over the rush-strewn apron-stage, and Mark Rylance, artistic director and leading actor, intoned those famous lines which here have a resonant self-reference: "May we cram/ Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt?" Plugs for new venues don't come more poetic than that.

The first full season has been launched with a pair of productions: Henry V, directed by Richard Olivier, which has gone to a lot of trouble, though to no great interpretative effect, to reproduce original Elizabethan stage practices in the costuming and all-male casting; and David Freeman's staging of The Winter's Tale - played on a carpet of red earth and with a tribal African feel to Tom Phillips's striking costumes and design - which respects the Globe's distinctive architecture but has a freer, modern approach.

I would have enjoyed the latter production more if I could have seen more of it. Coming between me and complete appreciation was one of the pair of hefty Corinthian pillars that support the canopy roof. Crucial events occurring up stage - like the coming to life of Hermione's statue and Leontes's reaction to it - were blocked off, and I could only get a partial perspective on such novel ideas as having Hermione turn herself into the bear that pursues and consumes Antigonus. One of the joys of the Globe is that there's nothing to stop you from going walkabout amongst the groundlings and you may say this is what I should have done here. But I had a child with me who would have seen little from that low position in a crowd and, besides, a punter who has paid pounds 18 for a seat shouldn't have to have recourse to such shifting around.

Neither production could be described as inspired. The Winter's Tale has some beautiful touches, particularly in the way it handles transitions. Time, played as a modern, rather posh vagrant with a cider bottle by Nicholas Le Prevost, enters through the groundlings and as he talks of the swift passage of 16 years, Anna-Livia Ryan's adult Perdita magically emerges, fully formed, from the baby bundle left on stage, solicitiously helped up by the Old Shepherd. But, with some admirable exceptions (especially Mr Le Prevost, who doubles as a very funny, jerkily Cleese-like Autolycus), the cast too often opt for a coarse emotionalism.

Mark Rylance's excellent performance as Henry V demonstrates that subtlety of psychological shading can be communicated at this theatre. This actor's total, beautifully unforced rapport with an audience is a wonder to behold (whether he's letting us into Henry's pained sense of kingly burden or extracting exquisite comedy in the wooing scene with Toby Cockerell's delectably coy Katherine) and the Globe provides the ideal arena for it.

This theatre - in the inn-yard intimacy of its architecture and its exposure to the elements (there was torrential rain at the first night of Henry V) - promotes an amazing sense of audience solidarity, and if this weren't a potential liability as well as a strength, then there would be no excitement to it. Listening to the crowd hiss at and boo the dastardly French, however, you may wonder if Olivier's handsome but dull production does enough to put such atavistic jingoism into perspective. What will The Merchant of Venice be like at this address?

Behind me at The Winter's Tale, there was a couple glued to a large Complete Works, following the text with a fanatical devotion. Next to me at Henry V, was a young Japanese woman who kept a camera trained on the production throughout as though it were some extended alternative to the Changing of the Guard. A tourist-trap-cum-playpen-for-cranky-academics? The Globe can be infinitely more: and the quickest way to prove this is to let a truly great director loose in here.

'Henry V' and 'The Winter's Tale' in rep at The Globe, London SE1 (0171-620 0202)

Comments