Bard in the Botanics Hamlet promises to add extra dimensions to Shakespeare’s masterpiece

In the last half-decade, the idea of women playing Shakespeare’s great heroic male roles has moved from the margins of theatre well into the mainstream. Great female performers have always yearned for these roles, of course; and some – notably the great Sarah Bernhardt, who played Hamlet on the London stage in 1899 – have had enough personal power in the theatre industry to make the dream come true.
Nicole Cooper as HamletNicole Cooper as Hamlet
Nicole Cooper as Hamlet

Since the turn of the millennium, though, the trickle of female heroes has become a flood; and now Scotland’s own dedicated Shakespeare company – the Bard In The Botanics company of Glasgow, this year celebrating its 18th year of Shakespeare in the gardens – has produced its own star female performer in heroic roles, in the shape of Nicole Cooper, winner of the 2017 CATS Award for Best Female Performance for her stunning evocation of a passionate and arrogant female warrior in the 2016 Bard production of Coriolanus. Since then, she has played a remarkable female Timon Of Athens in the 2017 season; and now, in 2019, she is about to take on the role of Hamlet, in an outdoor version of the play directed by Bard In The Botanics boss Gordon Barr.

“The thing is,” says Cooper, in a break from rehearsals, “that a Shakespeare character is always a human being first, before anything else; and at the deepest level, I think Hamlet is about someone grieving

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the death of their father, and struggling both to focus on anything else, and to deal with other people’s expectations.

“Playing Hamlet as a woman, though, does add a powerful dimension both to her confusion about how she should respond – Hamlet does hesitate to behave like a vengeful macho prince, and having that behaviour expected of a woman intensifies that – and to her relationship with Ophelia, which becomes unacceptable to the court because it is a same-sex relationship. So there are new perspectives there which it’s wonderful to be able to explore.

“It’s also, I have to say, really thrilling to be able to get into the physicality of these male roles, and to own your own story, and be in charge of a scene, in a way that Shakespeare’s female characters rarely can.

“Cleopatra does,” says Cooper, referring to last year’s fine Bard production of Antony And Cleopatra, in which she played the Egyptian queen, “and so does Rosalind in As You Like It, our opening show this year. Mostly, though, even the most memorable female characters are reacting to a story driven by men.”

Cooper has therefore been taking serious fencing lessons in preparation for playing Hamlet, as she did before playing Coriolanus three years ago; and she is also looking forward to playing the small but vital role of Jacques, the melancholy courtier, in Gordon Barr’s opening production of As You Like It. This year’s Bard season, titled Muse Of Fire, also features indoor Kibble Palace productions of Henry V and Richard III, directed by Barr’s associate Jennifer Dick; and Barr is delighted that after an exceptionally successful season last year – helped by last summer’s glorious weather, since the company is heavily dependent on box office income - Bard In The Botanics currently has a little more financial security than usual, and has been able to invest in improvements both in staffing levels, and in working conditions.

For Cooper, though, it’s clear that the joy of working on the great canon of Shakespeare’s plays will always outweigh the ups and downs of Glasgow weather, and the makeshift conditions involved in making theatre outside a conventional venue. Married to the well-known Glasgow hairdresser Scott Cooper, and the mother of three young daughters, Cooper does relatively little acting outside the Bard season, a fact that raises interesting questions about why other Scottish theatres show so little interest in her obvious star quality; but whatever the cause, she finds huge satisfaction in this classic repertoire, and in developing the skills it demands.

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“When I left the RSAMD back in the early 2000s,” says Cooper, “I never thought that Shakespeare would play such a big role in my life; I was much more interested in Sam Shepard, and that kind of modern repertoire. With Shakespeare, though – well I feel that even now, I am only just figuring out how powerful his poetry is, and how it helps and supports actors. People are often intimidated by it; but I find more and more that if you just return to the rhythm of the text, and let it help you, you will find the emotional truth of what’s going on.

“With Hamlet, for instance, many of the soliloquies have these short, broken sentences; and that suggests someone struggling to think straight, and distracted by grief. I lost my own father not so long ago, and I recognise that feeling, that sense that everything is disjointed. And then there’s the powerful connection with the audience, which is perhaps the greatest single thing about performing Shakespeare, because it never really goes away. Hamlet has this extraordinary number of soliloquies, and in playing the part you have to ask why.

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“And the only answer is that this character who is finding it hard to speak to the other characters in the play, and is feeling so isolated, is nonetheless still reaching out for human connection and understanding, via the audience. I find that incredibly moving, and I think that intense connection with the audience is perhaps the reason why Hamlet remains one of the best-known characters in all of theatre; and also why the role is so wonderful, and so satisfying, to play.”

Hamlet is at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, from 18 July until 3 August. The 2019 Bard In The Botanics season opens on 26 June with As You Like It, and runs until 3 August

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