GLASGOW’S annual Bard in the Botanics (BiB) mini-festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It is, as the saying goes, “a good deed in a naughty world”.
Like almost everything else in the performing arts, last year’s BiB was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. Hugely welcome though the 2021 programme is, it is still adversely affected by the public health crisis.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s recent announcement of a relaxation of the Covid protocols for theatre venues has come too late to save the festival’s much-loved indoor productions. From tomorrow, the physical distancing requirement for theatre audiences will be reduced from two metres to one.
However, that is little use to BiB where its shows inside the beautiful Kibble Palace glasshouse are concerned. The two-metre requirement, which was in place when BiB artistic director Gordon Barr decided on this year’s programme, made those productions impossible this year.
Consequently, the company has had to proceed with just two outdoor shows this summer. The first of those is a staging of, to my mind, Shakespeare’s finest comedy, Twelfth Night, which opened last weekend. The other, which plays next month, is a rendering of one of Shakespeare’s later plays, The Winter’s Tale.
The choice of the latter – which defies easy categorisation by including elements of tragedy, romantic comedy and pastoral – is typical of a festival that takes its commitment to the Bard’s oeuvre very seriously. BiB has staged more than 100 productions in its 20-year history, including renderings of some of Shakespeare’s most difficult dramas.
There have been, for instance, at least two productions of that bloodiest of tragedies, Titus Andronicus, complete with its horrendous, off-the-scale misogynistic violence, and general mutilation and murder. In 2002, the festival’s first year, they even attempted a Titus in the style of Japanese Kabuki theatre. It was a production that, if not a complete success, was certainly brave and memorable.
In the two decades that have followed, BiB’s imaginative and liberated approach to classical drama has led to many fine productions. In 2011, for example, we admired Stephen Clyde’s Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (for which he received the Best Male Performance prize at the Critics’ Awards for the Theatre in Scotland).
The superb Nicole Cooper, who has become a mainstay of the company since she joined it in 2008, also bagged a Critics’ Awards gong (Best Female Performance) for her cross-cast playing of the titular lead in Coriolanus in 2016. Since then, in a welcome defiance of the male domination of Shakespeare’s major characters, she has given acclaimed performances as Timon of Athens and Hamlet.
It is nothing to a company with such a pedigree to stage such a complex play as The Winter’s Tale. In the drama, which is set in classical antiquity (as we know by the characters’ reverence for the oracle at Delphi), we witness the terrible consequences of misguided rage. Wrongly suspecting his dear friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, of impregnating his wife, King Leontes of Sicily embarks on a campaign of violent, and erroneous, jealousy that leads to the deaths of his nearest and dearest. As Mamillius, son of the vengeful King comments, “a sad tale’s best for winter”. Never one to stand by tradition, Barr is presenting it in summer.
That is for next month, however. Now, and until July 31, the director is staging the great comedy Twelfth Night. Barr’s production opens with the image of a ghost light, the sole source of illumination on the stage of a theatre when it is closed.
He is in good company. James Brining’s excellent, recent staging of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at Leeds Playhouse begins with exactly the same hopeful metaphor for the live arts as they emerge from lockdown.
Barr relocates Twelfth Night from the house of the wealthy Countess Olivia in the ancient Balkans (the now forgotten territory of Illyria) to the backstage area of a theatre. We are, I suppose, watching either the extra-curricular shenanigans of a theatre company or a dream-like rendering of the play.
Either way, it matters little. For the most part, the setting notwithstanding, the production (which is performed in early-20th century dress) plays the drama with a pretty straight bat.
Straight, that is, aside from the facts that major male characters are played by women, and the whole shooting match is presented by a cast of just six actors. However, such modifications are par for the course for Bard in the Botanics.
THE play begins with the shipwrecking on the Illyrian coast of the young woman Viola (BiB stalwart Stephanie McGregor), who quickly disguises herself as the male page Cesario. However, the beating heart of the drama – namely, the conflict between Olivia’s wayward kinsman Sir Toby Belch and his friends, on the one hand, and the Countess’s moralistic steward Malvolio, on the other – is already underway.
Alan Steele (above) gives a fine performance as the surly house manager, full both of himself and a sense of righteous indignation. The killjoy’s outrage finds its measure in the booze-fuelled debauchery of Adam Donaldson’s hilarious Sir Toby and his idiot pal Sir Andrew Aguecheek (played brilliantly by Nicole Cooper, who dexterously shifts roles between the moronic knight and Countess Olivia herself).
Voice projection is always a challenge with outdoor theatre, and it is slightly uneven here. This was particularly noticeable on opening night during the “letter scene”, in which Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria (of Olivia’s staff) conspire to convince Malvolio that the Countess is in love with him.
This scene is best played, for comic effect, with the three conspirators “hidden” unconvincingly at the back of the stage, behind the deluded Malvolio. Barr’s decision to place them in the midst of the physically distanced audience backfires somewhat.
However, this slight weakness is overcome by both the uproarious comedy of Malvolio’s subsequent appearance (in his famous yellow stockings) and the tragedy of the steward’s victimisation. Once again, Barr presents a well-paced and thoroughly enjoyable Shakespeare comedy.
Twelfth Night runs until July 31. The Winter’s Tale runs August 4-28: bardinthebotanics.co.uk