Back in 1999 Peter Oswald's imaginative play Augustine's Oak was the highlight of the summer season at Shakespeare's Globe. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Oswald's dramatisation of The Golden Ass, largely based upon Apuleius' Latin text from antiquity. Following the fortunes of a lusty young man who finds his pursuit of Eros and magic transforms him not into the wise owl he fondly imagines but merely a braying ass, Shakespeare himself is likely to have drawn upon the appealing image of a foolish man turned ass in A Midsummer Night's Dream but it's used far more effectively by the Bard than in Oswald's verse drama.
Lucius (Mark Rylance) an Athenian, journeys to the strange land of Hypata after the death of his mother. Hearing wild stories of the supernatural powers of local witches he determines to acquire knowledge of the Dark Arts and attempts to transform himself, failing miserably and beginning a new life of servitude as a donkey. After a series of outlandish adventures -including a puppet re-enactment of the legend of Psyche and Cupid- he's finally redeemed and reclaims his human form, newly humble after his chastening experiences.
It's a morality fable of sorts, here presented as something which seems like a fusion between a chimerical no man's land and Vanity Fair where every vice is on display. Tim Carroll envisaged the production as rooted in recent popular culture so there are elements of the circus and fairground in evidence and even mini scooters appear as transportation for the marauding bandits. In parts it's a fun frolic and the gulf between the ancient source of the story and its modern edginess is intriguing but the sum of its parts doesn't unfortunately equate with my idea of an entertaining evening; it's certainly way overlong, often seems puerile rather than witty and lacks flair overall. It's good to see the Globe tackling adventurous material but a better choice of play would be welcome.
Notices from the popular press....
IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "Touching and funny, if overlong, The Golden Ass shows a company strutting its stuff to entertaining effect." MADDY COSTA for THE GUARDIAN says, "Adapted from the Latin novel by Apuleius, Oswald's play is, for the first two acts at least, exhilarating." ROBERT SHORE for the EVENING STANDARD says, "Animal fable given pantomime form". PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Vigorous and inventive production." LUCTY POWELL for TIME OUT says, "...Oswald's verse is also deliciously rich and allusive.." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "Mark Rylance brings an extraordinary energy and intelligence to the marathon role of Lucius."
External links to full reviews from newspapers