The Critics: THEATRE
They've had 25 years to prepare for their role but on the big night they looked fairly under-rehearsed. They didn't know whether to stand up or sit down, where or when to move, or how loudly or quietly they needed to speak. But as the sky darkened over The Two Gentlemen of Verona - the first production that opens this "Prologue Season" at Shakespeare's Globe - the audience's performance visibly improved. They found their feet. After the interval, the groundlings, who pay only pounds 5 to stand, got off the pounds 1 cushions on which they had sat in neat little rows, and gathered round the stage.

They got noisier too. They loudly applauded Crab, the mongrel dog. He was very lovable. They hissed the scheming, double-crossing Proteus. As played with the deceptively innocent charm of a spaniel, by the Globe's artistic director, Mark Rylance, he was particularly loathsome. Then, in Act Five, Rylance forcibly tries to make love to his best friend's girlfriend. Unfortunately his best friend and his own girlfriend are watching the action. He is exposed and confesses. Shame and guilt confound him, he says. This was too much for one woman in the unreserved seating, who shouted out: "Quite right."

It's hard not to get over-involved here. You're so close you can smell the hay on the stage. A gust of wind off the Thames scatters the papers that Proteus's girlfriend Julia (an attractively forthright Stephanie Roth) has spread out on the ground. From time to time an aeroplane or helicopter drowns out half a dozen lines. These hazards only add to the spontaneity of the performances. There is a paradox about the Globe. A tremendous amount of scholarship and pounds 8m (out of the pounds 32m spent on the whole complex) has been expended on making this theatre as close as possible to Shakespeare's original. Yet this exercise in authenticity - this museum curator's dream, as it were - produces, by the genius of its original design, the freshest, most immediate, and most surprising new theatre in Britain.

Two Gents is a shrewd choice for a "prologue" production. This early romance comedy has a disproportionately high number of scenes that are monologues or duologues, which makes it relatively uncomplicated to stage. The plot may move between Verona, Milan and the woods, but no scenic extravagances are required (or indeed wanted). Two Gents also provides an excellent role for the Globe's resident Shakespearian talent, Mark Rylance.

With his clean-cut baby face, gleaming smile and neat figure, Rylance shuffles round the stage as if it's his second home (which it almost is). Watch Rylance deliberate in front of the Globe audience whether or not he will betray Valentine and why he is justified in giving Julia the boot. Watch the way he takes in the upper, middle and lower galleries, and then looks down to include the groundlings in the yard. (Each section of the audience is united by the fact that they are bathed in the same light that fills the stage.) You will get a feeling of the lost rapport between Elizabethan actors and audiences.

This Two Gents, wittily and unflashily directed by Jack Shepherd, makes a crisp, funny and touching debut. Lennie James is an admirably earnest Valentine, and, as Sylvia, Anastasia Hille appears as a frayed and spectral blonde (with the customary whiff of Maggie Smith). When Matthew Scurfield, as the Duke of Milan, slyly leads Lennie James into disclosing his plans for eloping with his daughter, the complicity between actors and audience - which is never overt or heavy-handed - creates an atmosphere that is as near as dammit the real thing. The laughs that run round the Globe gather us together. Shakespeare becomes communal entertainment.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.