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Theatre Review: Heart of oak but little fire

THE ORIGINAL Globe Theatre was the Royal Court of its day, the nerve centre of new writing of the day - a fact that it's all too easy to forget, given the preoccupation with period authenticity at the replica building on the Southbank.

Now, during its third full season, The Globe presents the first play commissioned from a living author. That's the good news. It's less gratifying to report that Augustine's Oak by Peter Oswald, the writer in residence, comes across as a worthy, well-intentioned exercise rather than a play composed with any real sense of creative urgency.

A historical drama, mainly in verse, about the effects of Saint Augustine's AD 597 mission to bring the the Christians of the Celtic Church under the authority of Rome, the piece has a made-to-measure feel. An examination of nationhood is, admittedly, an apt subject for a traditional open-air courtyard theatre.

The Globe has the atmosphere of a debating chamber and encourages adresses direct to the audience. And certainly, contemporary political concerns about the relationship between the centre and the periphery - such as the clash of national sovereignty and European directives or unionism versus devolution- are mirrored in a play which stresses the peculiar divisions holding sway in Britain at the time.

On a stage dominated by a huge, split and armless effigy of the crucified Christ that rears over the proceedings like a great blighted tree, the colour-coded factions in Tim Carroll's well-orchestrated and forcefully played production troop in and out.

Believing themselves to embody an older and more authentic Christian tradition, the Welsh are reluctant to make common cause with the visiting Romans against the Pagan invaders who have driven them to the fringes. And they resent the calls to imperial conformity which would be the price of such an alliance.

The Saxons, as represented by Martin Turner's comically hapless King Ethelbert (whose allegiance to the old Gods is compromised because he is simultaneously deeply in love with and religiously estranged from his French Christian wife), look to be vulnerable both to the converting drive of the missionaries and attack from more powerful kings.

I did not expect that I would ever feel a moment of nostalgia for the notorious 1980 play The Romans in Britain, but sitting through Augustine's Oak I found myself thinking that I would swap a great deal of the latter's ecumenical fair-mindedness and genuine, if rather "repro",verbal flair for some of the polemical fire shown by Howard Brenton.

True, the anti-imperialist parallels in the earlier play are tendentious and controversial but that seems no bad thing when presented with a piece as unprovocative as Oswald's which ends in sentimental fudge. This author has strong talents as an adaptor (his introduction of the works of the Japanese master Chikamitsu to National Theatre audiences was very persuasive) and Augustine's Oak proves he can range between using skilled Parnassian versifying to evoke the strange, edge-of-the-world sensation felt by the Romans on arrival in Britain to comic touches in the style of Black Adder.

But new writing at The Globe needs to have a more ruthless singularity of vision if it is to re-approach its old Royal Court status.

To 24 Sept, 0171-401 9919