THEATRE / The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare's Globe, Londong groundling-pleaser

The light faded. The rain fell. But Mark Rylance's first production at the reconstructed 'Wooden O' came home safe and dry. Paul Taylor finds himself pleasantly surprised by an invigoratin...
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The Independent Culture
The thrust stage of Shakespeare's reconstructed Globe theatre famously features two pillars that support its canopy roof. To choose for the inaugural production a play which stars a dog might seem, therefore, to be asking for trouble - the stage baptised in more ways than one. But the canine kept continent and so - on the second night of Jack Shepherd's spirited staging of The Two Gentlemen of Verona - did the heavens. Until, that is, the final act, when a couple of brief showers treated the groundlings - the 500 spectators who stand in the yard of this "wooden O", exposed to the elements - to a tantalising trailer for the full-scale downpour that began the moment the performance finished.

I've never liked shows that cast the audience in a fake role: the Good Old Days-style of dressing up in period gear, say, for a repro old-fashioned evening at the music hall, replete with a formulaic participation ritual. The previous night, I'd been at a musical which trades on the pretence that its audience are Sixties swingers at a rock festival, so the falsities of this set-up were very much in my mind.

Any worries that the Globe would encourage, or even pander to, such tastes were quickly dispelled. The actors, like the audience, are in modern dress (Ray-Bans, peaked caps, sneakers, etc). This produces a bizarre, dislocating sense of incongruity at first, rather as if one were to turn up at the Lloyd's building and find that it had been taken over by toga'd Romans. Like the colour-blind, accent-deaf casting, it's a welcome signal that this is not to be a theme park or hive of stuffy antiquarianism. The intent (to offer a fresh perspective on the plays by exploring them in the original staging conditions) clearly does not involve a nostalgia-fogged turning- away from the present.

First impressions of the place: I hadn't expected it to be anything like as intimate. The drawback to this is a certain amount of discomfort: I sat in the front row of the highest of the tightly packed galleries with their backless wooden benches and if anyone wanted to get past to a seat, the entire row would have to move right out. The other thing that came as a big surprise is the light - not the daylight, but the absence of lighting effects when it gets dark. The fact that there's no discrimination between how the stage and the spectators are lit produces a rather drab evenness of tone across the former. We're so used to having our attention focused by lighting that the eye feels a trifle awkward exercising its greater freedom here.

Usually seen as the weak forerunner of the later, much greater romantic comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which explores the conflict between the claims of love and of friendship, would not be everybody's first choice for an inaugural production. The comparative baldness of its dramaturgy (it depends, almost exclusively, on soliloquy, duologue and aside) does, however, let you see how certain features of the Globe stage work very clearly. The pillars, for example, make handy hiding places for eavesdroppers, as when Lennie James's Valentine sees his intended about to be raped by his friend Proteus. Now disguised as a boy, Stephanie Roth's Julia sits behind one at a cafe table, listening stricken, while upstage her lover vainly serenades Anastasia Hille's elegant, balconied Sylvia.

The fact that the actors can see the faces of the audience and perform so close to the groundlings leaning on the edge of the stage makes the soliloquies much more of an interplay. Mark Rylance, the artistic director of the Globe and the actor playing Proteus, works the crowd brilliantly in such sequences as, fundamentally unconvinced himself, he tries to persuade us of his casuistical justifications for betraying friend and lover. Even as he speaks, the bad conscience behind the bluff is comically apparent in the nerviness and repression of the body language. Proteus is, in many ways, a sneaky shit but Rylance's natural sweetness and miraculous audience rapport convince you that he is a good person gone astray. Whether this carries you through the notorious near-rape and Valentine's subsequent absurd gesture of friendship is another matter.

The duo who steal the show are Jim Bywater's excellent cloth-capped northern Launce and his impervious dog Crab, which looks out at the audience with an expression that says, "Do you see what I have to put up with?" while ignoring and driving to distraction its ridiculous master. To say nothing of heroically resisting those pillars.

To 15 Sept. Booking: 0171-401 9919