A contemporary angle, but little Saxon violence

First Night Augustine's Oak Shakespeare's Globe London
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The Independent Online
THE ORIGINAL Globe Theatre was the Royal Court of its day, the nerve centre of new writing - a fact that it's all too easy to forget, given the preoccupation with period authenticity at the replica on the South Bank.

Now, during its third full season, the Globe presents its 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 St Augustine's mission in 597 to bring the Christians of the Celtic Church under the authority of Rome, the piece has an all together too made-to-measure feel.

An examination of nationhood is an apt subject for an open air theatre which encourages direct-audience address. And modern concerns about the relationship between the centre and the periphery, sovereignty and European directives are mirrored in a play that emphasises the divisions within the land visited by the mission from the Pope in Rome.

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

True, the anti-imperialist parallels in the earlier play, are tendentious and provocative. That seems no bad thing, though, when you are presented with a piece as unchallenging as Oswald's. This author has notable talent as an adapter (he introduced the work of the Japanese master Chikanitsu to National Theatre audiences) and Augustine's Oak proves he can range between Parnassian versifying and touches of Blackadder-style comedy.

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