For the final production of Mark Rylance’s reign as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, the company has turned to ancient Rome, courtesy of Peter Oswald’s adaptation of the Plautus play, The Rope. The company has been down this path before. This is its second version of a Latin play, following the successful 2002 production of Apuleius’s Golden Ass, also adapted by Oswald.
The plot is simple. Daemones’ daughter Palaestra has been kidnapped as a child and has been working in brothel. She's sold by her pimp to a rich man, only for the pimp to decamp with the money. After the eponymous storm, all the characters are shipwrecked close to Daemones’ home and, via various adventures, all ends happily.
Keen observers will have noted the resemblance to Pericles – indeed, Shakespeare’s comedy is based on the same Plautus original.
Oswald’s play, however, takes greater liberties with the text, with a very post-modern spin on the notion of comedy. In some cases, the self-referential and self-deprecating jokes are all too apt – “There’s always a weak place in every plot” prompts the retort “the weak place is the plot”, for instance.
The script is full of asides like that. Rylance playing Daemones departs the stage, owing to a supposed insensitivity to the word “Christmas”. It sounds trite, but on the night I attended, such knockabout stuff kept the audience entertained. Oswald even goes so far as to include asides on capitalism and the role of women in society.
Director Tim Carroll doesn’t let things slip and keeps the pace moving along. There’s a palpable air of pantomime in the theatre, with plenty of participation from the groundlings. The fun works both ways - the cast seem to be having as much fun as the audience.
Rylance, playing three roles, is excellent - although you do have the nagging feeling that the production has been designed to show his versatility. His Daemones is a mumbling American, and some of his monologues sound like jazz riff, a contrast to his smarmy-sounding pimp, Labrax.
In the past, Rylance has had the tendency to over-balance a production. This doesn’t happen here thanks to some good performances - particularly from James Garnon as a love-struck slave yearning for his freedom, from Edward Hogg as a trainee pimp (sounding uncannily like Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer) and from Emma Lowndes as a forthright Palaestra.
But that line I mentioned earlier about right – the plot is a weak place. This slight play is scarcely able to stretch to two hours. It might have stood muster as an hour-long sitcom episode, but here it flags long before the end, despite the actors’ best efforts. This is not the best way to remember Rylance's reign at this theatre.