No one could accuse young playwright Peter Oswald of being timid. Penning the first new play for Shakespeare s Globe since, um, Shakespeare is audacious enough, but taking on the epic topic of the sixth-century conversion of heathen Brits to Christianity and writing, almost entirely, in traditional Elizabethan verse raises the stakes to an entirely new level of theatrical boldness.
And it almost works, too - right up until the interval. In the first half, we re introduced to the pagan King Ethelbert of Kent (Martin Turner) and his Christian wife Queen Bertha (Yolanda Vazquez). Though the two are very much in love, the Queen feels beholden to act as if she hates her husband because of his refusal to convert. She s afraid that, unless he becomes a Christian, he ll go to hell when he dies. Salvation seems to arrive in the form of Augustine and his posse of 40 monks, sent by Pope Gregory to bring the island round to the one true way. After some soul-searching, Ethelbert sees the light and Bertha learns to love her husband no matter what his beliefs. Happy ending?
Well, not quite - in fact, that s only a third of the way through the play. Next thing you know, the action is transported to Wales (where the monks confront the Celts under the oak of the title) and then all over the island as the Christians try, with mixed success, to spread the word. By the start of the second half, the three seeming principals - Augustine, Ethelbert and Bertha - are all dead and the idealistic tussling has passed to the next generation with daughter Tata (Philippa Stanton) and her husband Edwin (Sean O Callaghan). And here, things start to fall apart. The message becomes muddied, the story overdrawn and the characters, bar a very amusing Marcello Magni as Edwin s faithful servant Lilla, much less interesting.
Turner s deadpan performance is spot-on as the husband wearied by his wife s capriciousness. And he spars well with Terry McGinity s proud but uncertain Augustine. Oswald too demonstrates a very impressive mastery of language in the early scenes between these two. To convey the bilingual nature of proceedings, he renders ‘ancient English in conversational modern prose, while ‘Latin is rendered strictly in heightened verse. This makes for one of the funniest scenes in the play where communication between Ethelbert, Bertha and Augustine, through a severely challenged interpreter, leads to misunderstanding and frustration all-round.
If only Augustine's Oak had focused on these three well-drawn characters, frustration levels for the audience could have been kept to a minimum. But alas, it was not to be. I think, in this instance, bold young Oswald and director Tim Carroll have bitten off more than they can chew.