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The Storm

Peter Oswald, freely based on The Rope by Plautus
Shakespeare’s Globe
(2005)

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After the disappointment of the three-man Tempest at this venue in May, Globe theatre fans get a final chance to see Mark Rylance making his Bankside swansong as lead actor and artistic director, following a decade at the helm, this time starring in a free adaptation of an ancient Roman farce.

Comedies by Plautus, combining romance with knockabout fun, have inspired many other playwrights and adaptors down the centuries: witness The Boys From Syracuse and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

But never more tellingly than with The Rope, in which Daemones, a destitute Athenian philanthropist, rediscovers his long-lost daughter Diana, now known as Palaestra, when she is shipwrecked by a storm and washed ashore.

Kidnapped as an infant and forced into prostitution (although she may still be a virgin), Palaestra and her maid take refuge in the neighbouring temple of Venus, where the pimp who enslaved her tries to seize her back.

But helped by Daemones, her admirer Plessidipus come to the rescue. Thus with father and daughter reunited she is now free to marry her young lover, while the villain is suitably punished and it all ends happily ever after.

Shakespeare wove the romantic elements of Plautus’s plot into his Pericles while it less obviously also provided him with the basis for The Tempest, including the storm and shipwreck.

Now Peter Oswald, commissioned by the director Tim Carroll, has ditched the Plautus play to create his own new version which concentrates on the prostitution side of the story, initially after doing extensive field research in and around the Plymouth naval base, where the oldest profession flourishes, its red-light district “awash with seamen”, as somebody quips in his play.

He originally wanted to set it in present-day Plymouth, but Carroll persuaded Oswald that it would be easier to keep the story in its Classical setting, a decision which results in overblown on-stage debates and sight-gags about the validity of playing an ancient Roman farce with an anachronistic mix of togas, tutus and a bowler, plus mobile phones and a TV weather map, while the Globe groundlings are urged to flash their digicams to conjure up a lightning storm.

Oswald’s version is harder-edged than either Plautus or Shakespeare, and as played by Emma Lowndes with a Coronation Street accent, Palaestra is now a cool practised hooker, at one point offering sex to her own dad in exchange for cash, before the truth comes out.

Rylance revels in his central role of Daemones, complete with a golfing cap, bearded chin and Yankee accent. But he also gleefully plays the low-life pimp in a city suit minus trousers (presumably lost during the shipwreck), and opens the show as narrator, cum weatherman, stumbling artfully over the rocky ‘assault course’ foreshore of Laura Hopkins’ design.

The main setting is a backdrop of doors panelled with tinted photographic images of the Parthenon and its marine surroundings, which stands in for the temple of Venus, presided over by Fiona Creese as its glamorous custodian, while at one point a character threatens to “jump off the cliff and commit seaside.”

There is bright humour aplenty, and a well-staged knockabout fight and chase. But despite (or perhaps because of) the gags and inventive action, complete with prancing ballet dancers, the production plods across two and a half hours length, eventually outstaying its welcome

Indeed, following the interval it was noticeable that a large swathe of the audience had simply vanished in the night, grown weary of too much argy-bargy, low-level slapstick, and a seriously unfocused plot.

Reviewer: John Thaxter