The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius is the only surviving Latin novel. Much loved by Elizabethan playwrights, it is the major source for Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream. Here, Tim Carroll's production of Peter Oswald's stage adaptation makes much of the lewdness of the original source (why was Latin never like this at my school?) and just about manages to hold the audience's interest.
The play tells the story of Lucius, a young man who travels to Hypata, famous for its witches, because he wishes to be transformed into a bird. Instead, he gets turned into an ass and, after a series of cruel mishaps, (anyone who's read Black Beauty or seen Au Hasard Balthazar will know the sort of thing) is transformed by the goddess Isis into a man again.
Oswald's new play has been specially written for the Globe and is included in the Cupid and Psyche season, not least because it contains the story of Cupid and Psyche as narrated by the housekeeper to a band of brigands. Although it's an integral part of the original book, this scene differs so greatly from what's gone on before that it seems slightly contrived: an add-on to correspond to the season's theme more closely.
The effect is exacerbated by the way the scene's performed, acted out by puppets with the parts of Cupid and Psyche excellently sung by James Oxley and Amy Freston. Nevertheless, the extract does have a crucial bearing on the larger whole. Lucius is one of only two Cupid and Psyche auditors and the story of one's curiosity and the effects of transformation mirrors his own.
Mark Rylance excels as the hapless Lucius. His metamorphosis back to a man, when at first he doesn't realise what has happened, is incredibly moving, while the air of melancholy he adopts, as he tries to cope with life as a donkey, touches throughout.
There is also a sparky performance from Louise Bush as the sexy maid, Photis, who tries to help Lucius, and a notable cameo from Liam Brennan as the storytelling housekeeper (a distant relative of Craggy Island's Mrs Doyle). Elsewhere, a chorus of a particularly camp brigands provides a real crowd-pleasing elements.
That said, it also points up the problem with this production - that there are too many shades of pantomime, circus, silent movies and music-hall mixed up with the melodrama and ribaldry. Despite some shining moments, it's an uneasy mixture, particularly on the Globe's unrelenting wooden benches.