Audience plays its part in Shakespeare's wooden O

FIRST NIGHT

Standing on the stage of the newly resurrected Globe Theatre, its artistic director Mark Rylance yesterday opened Henry V by asking: "May we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air of Agincourt?"

Last year saw a dummy run of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, to work out the dynamics of the new space and the placement of two crucial columns supporting the stage roof (hearsay from some seats suggests that the problem may be insoluble). But now the late Sam Wanamaker's dream of rebuilding Shakespeare's Globe at Bankside, on the south side of the Thames in London, has finally come true.

After nearly two weeks of previews, the press were finally allowed in on Thursday for The Winter's Tale, but the official opening was reserved for Henry V, directed by Richard Olivier, whose father, Lord Olivier, directed the famous wartime screen version.

With no one knowing quite what to expect, the atmosphere at the opening matinee was subdued. The white exterior walls of the lovingly reconstructed building glowed in the hot afternoon sun but a lot of the oak seats were empty. As a result the audience took a while to warm up, but Olivier's rather anodyne production gradually took off as the actors actively encouraged their audience to hiss and boo the villainous French in authentic style.

Following the Elizabethan practice of not allowing women on stage, this Henry V is an all-male affair. But anyone expecting a new gender-bending interpretation will be disappointed. Toby Cockerell is a delightfully demure Katherine of France but there are barely any other female roles and elsewhere Olivier plays by the rules. Rylance, widely regarded as the finest actor of his generation, is suitably boyish as the young king and his performance grows more moving as the play progresses.

The audience were clearly delighted by the glowing colours of the period costumes, which matched everyone's ideas of what Elizabethan dress should be, with ruffs using as many as 20 yards of hand-sewn linen.

The big test comes next Thursday with arrival of the Queen for the official Royal Opening. We'll know then whether or not the second Elizabethan age is truly upon us. By then, she and the rest of the audience will know the answer to Rylance's question. Have they succeeded in cramming Shakespeare's world within this modern-day wooden O? If yesterday's enthusiastic crowd is anything to go by, the answer will be a resounding "Yes".

At a particularly tender moment, a gentle warble filled the air. No, not a singer in the musicians' gallery above the stage. Unfortunately, this was thetrilling of a mobile phone. Authenticity only goes so far.

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