What's this? Punch and Judy at the Globe? As Shakespeare goes interactive, it's time the audience learnt their lines

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The Independent Online
My instant reaction to the new Globe Theatre at London's Bankside was: well, it'll be nice when it's finished. Surveying the majestic, topless farmhouse loaf that this Elizabethan replica so curiously resembles, you make all kinds of necessary mental adjustments (remove the cranes, blank out the Portakabins, pretend the arc lights aren't there, ignore the generator noise, forget the looming ruin of Bankside Power Station) and you're still mesmerised by the unvarnished planking and just-made-it breezeblocks, the lashed-up walkways and stencilled signs. Even the buxom sellers of fizzy orange drinks (a nice Nell Gwynne touch) don't exactly drench you in period atmosphere. It all feels so temporary. God knows what the tourists make of it, and whether it makes them feel they're aboard the QE2 during its famous floating refit.

The production of Two Gentlemen of Verona is as lively as human ingenuity can make one of Shakespeare's most lumpen comedies, but such is the nature of the evening that you spend your time reviewing the audience. This is the theatre where, of course, you're supposed to join in, heckle, barrack, hurl fruit and generally interact with the thespians in approved groundling style. It took a while to get them going. Most of the groundlings spent the first half watching the darkening sky for rain, surreptitiously swigging beer as if at a rock festival, and wondering if the blonde in the royal box was or wasn't Jane Horrocks off the telly (it was). Gradually, some people got the idea that they were supposed to be part of the dramaturgical mise-en-scene, and tentatively plonked their elbows on the edge of the stage. When Launce the droll appeared with a dog in tow, the audience reached up to pet it. When Proteus revealed his secret plan to dump Julia, everyone hissed. When the sleazeball Thurio appeared in swimming trunks and dipped his toe over the edge of the stage, they went Ooh and Aah. It was, in other words, Shakespeare as Punch-and-Judy show, with the audience re-thought as kids.

But as the night wore on, things grew up. The professional classes in the "gentlemen's box" broke out mobile fridges of Chablis. Mobile phones shrilled. The elbow-on-stage crew feasted their groundling eyes on Anastasia Hille's bosom as, in a flimsy nightie, she fought off an attacker two inches away from them. Unscripted banana skins whistled past the ears of the salsa band. And, as one of the (on-stage) warring couples attempted a reconciliation, a kindly old gent from the stalls shouted, "Don't do it, Julia!" in counselling-service tones. He got the biggest cheer of the night. I'm happy to believe that interactive Shakespeare is the drama of the future; like the Globe itself, it just needs a bit more sanding and polishing. But where do you learn to be a good audience?

Please do not ask me about Koo Stark. I have absolutely nothing further to disclose about our relationship. While naturally delighted about the happy condition in which she finds herself, I cannot be drawn into idle speculation as to the begetter of her abdominal bump. I simply will not discuss what we once meant to each other. No, no, my lips are sealed. You cannot drag it out of me. Scalding hooks. Wild horses.

Oh, very well, then.

We met just once. It was years ago. I sat next to her at a dinner party. You were expecting something more sensational? Draw near, gentle reader, for there is more. I am happy to tell you that Ms Stark did something to me that no other woman has ever done, before or since. She was by my side, looking very gorgeous (her eyes are dangerously bright and flickering, like the snake-woman's in Coleridge's poem "Christobel") and I cudgelled my brain for a conversational opening but could think of nothing that did not involve the Royal Family, or porn movies, or both. Conceding defeat, I turned to talk to the woman on my right, leaving Ms Stark to the charms of the chap on her left. Exactly one minute later, I felt the odd sensation of being interfered with, and realised that Ms Stark's hand was rummaging in the pocket of my jacket. As I turned back, she was taking out the contents of same and inspecting them with amusement. It was a shameful display: disposable lighter, No 49 bus ticket, sticky half-pack of mentholyptus Tunes, bafflingly acquired card from telephone booth bearing legend, "Large Oriental chest for sale, phone Desiree", disengaged cuff-button, souvenir biro emblazoned with "Cutty Sark , Greenwich" logo, paperclip - plus (thank God) the bill from a hotel in Connemara where I'd spent the previous week. We talked about Ireland. It wasn't the most passionate encounter in history, but Ms Stark's direct approach to the socially challenged was damned effective.

Rod Steiger, the brilliant actor with the threatening yap and staring eyes, was in London this week, doing some filming for a new movie called Incognito. It's about an art forgery, which is wholly appropriate since Mr Steiger has taken the mantle of the late Edward G Robinson as Hollywood's premier art connoisseur. On the last day of filming, he rang an American actor friend, William Hootkins, the burly and grizzled veteran of a thousand radio plays, audiobooks and voice-overs for trailers of small-town-in- peril disaster movies. "C'mon Bill," commanded Steiger, "take me to some galleries."

Misunderstanding the great man's requirements, Hootkins went into a brisk tourist itinerary: "Well, you've got to see the Claes Oldenburg at the Hayward, and the Spanish flower paintings at the Dulwich Gallery and - have you been to the Sainsbury's wing of the National?"

"No, Bill, no," said Steiger. "I mean gall-er-ies. Shop-ping."

The afternoon was spent cruising the art circuit from Bayswater to Hampstead in Steiger's white limousine, burning plastic.

"And it's odd, you know," reports Hootkins, "how all galleries treat you differently if you draw up in one of those things, with a film star in tow. In seconds, you have a glass of champagne in your hand, a catalogue under your arm and you're looking at two specimens of London-art-gallery loveliness."

Steiger is now back in the US, auditioning portrait painters to immortalise himself and his young family. "Sort of Graham Sutherland with a softer edge," is the kind of thing he's looking for, should you have your box of acrylics handy.

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