However, the 1996 prologue season and the opening season last year had critics tearing up their carefully prepared speeches of condemnation and chorusing cautious approval. The second season sees Richard Olivier (who directed Henry V 12 months ago) return with The Merchant of Venice and Lucy Bailey (garlanded with praise for her staging of Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy) try her hand at As You Like It.
If doubts persist about the artistic validity of a project that nails Shakespeare's word to a wooden replica of his world, both productions do much to dispel them. They confirm that a trip to the Globe is potentially one of the most rewarding - if one of the most uncomfortable - theatrical experiences in town. A salient feature of both productions is their vigorous interactivity with the audience - they are simply responsive to their surroundings.
This is probably the very thing that the theatre's detractors would seize on as evidence of its tawdry nature. However, these shows are unashamedly riotous, crowd-baiting affairs, conducted to the whine of sackbut, the beat of tambour and the chime of dulcimer - the sort of entertainment any self-respecting Puritan would want prohibited immediately. I can't remember when I last saw audiences or casts so visibly enjoying themselves. In both cases, however, the knockabout playfulness draws you into rather than distracts you from the central dramatic concerns.
Marcello Magni and Lilo Baur - two core members of Theatre de Complicite - might have seemed like the two actors least likely to dress up in period Venetian rags and then adhere to a well worn text. However, Shakespeare's Wooden "O" thrives on the kind of fraught complicity between spectator and actor that their company so delights in. Not only do the Globe's bare- boards necessities force the audience's imagination to work overtime, they also have the effect of turning the spectator into a kind of player: you can't be a passive bystander, you have to participate in the mock- Tudor gusto of it all. Far from rendering our responses insincere, this universal role-playing charges the atmosphere with ambivalent emotion.
Baur is sadly underused as Shylock's dour renegade daughter Jessica, but Magni brings every ounce of his physical expertise to the part of the tumbling buffo Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's renegade servant. On stage and off, he is delightfully Puckish - tripping up his blind, amnesiac old father and providing a refreshing counterpoint to Mark Rylance's too tremulous lover Bassanio, into whose service he enters.
He spends much of the time, especially during the plentifully supplied intervals, roving among the groundlings like a warm-up act on heat, attempting to start an Italian sing-song, showering the front-row with half-masticated bits of apple and heralding the recommencement of play in his own unique way - at one point, his hand gets glued to a bell and he runs round dementedly trying to shake it off until the clangour fills the air; the feel is more school playground, England, than St Mark's, Venice.
Magni whips up our appetite for spectacle, and this is precisely what starts to gall when Shylock threatens to extract his pound of flesh from Antonio (Jack Shepherd in Jeremy Irons-style martyr-mode) in recompense for the 3,000 ducats he borrowed and failed to repay. The audience has to wrestle with its conscience not to hiss at Norbert Kentrup's facelessly placid usurer as he asks for his bond to be met to the letter ("Hath not a Jew ... passions?" he asks - not this one).
Like the multiple-choice caskets that Bassanio's beloved Portia uses to test her suitors, there is something half-joking about the way Kentrup - his head forever buried in his accounting book - suggests the forfeit in the first place. The director succeeds in eliding the moments of comedy and high drama so that it becomes difficult to say at what point things start to get really unpleasant. We find ourselves directly implicated when these games turn sour - and when the rule of law bends at the last minute to serve Christian vengeance.
Some have suggested that As You Like It was the first play Shakespeare wrote for the newly opened Globe in 1599. Lucy Bailey lets the comedy make itself at home. If "All the world's a stage" then it's a very oddly shaped one; most of the pit is used as a playing area, with Orlando taking on the wicked Duke Frederick's bare-chested wrestler Charles in a sweaty bout conducted among hapless punters. Characters don't so much walk on as push their way through. There are even more apples: an entire orchard's worth scatters towards the crowd at one point. The forest of Arden may be a place of "winter and rough weather" and the exiled duke and his followers may hug themselves in their animal skins, but the tone never gets too chill.
David Fielder as Touchstone, the fool, reminded me of Alexei Sayle without the bite. Celia (Tonia Chauvet) seems positively chipper that Rosalind, her cousin and soulmate, is disguised (thinly) as a man and is teaching Orlando to woo her ("You have simply misused our sex in your loveprate" almost sounds a compliment). They make a nervy, grinny pair of blokes do Paul Hilton and Anastasia Hille. When they kiss, though, you hear the laughter quieten to awe. If something strange has just happened, the audience knows it has mainly itself to thank.
`The Merchant of Venice' and `As You Like It' are in repertory at Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (0171-401 9919).
Dominic CavendishReuse content