Of all the theatre seasons cancelled this summer, Glasgow’s annual Bard In The Botanics Shakespeare Festival was one of the hardest to let go. With half of its shows normally staged inside the wonderful Kibble Palace, and the other half outside on a great sloping lawn surrounded by trees, the season - which normally starts in June and continues until early August - seemed like a possible candidate for survival, at least so far as its outdoor shows were concerned; although in the end, the sheer difficulty of organising rehearsals and preparing productions during lockdown forced artistic director Gordon Barr and his company to admit defeat, and defer their planned season until 2021.
The loss of this year’s Bard season, though, only sharpens the memory of past brilliant Shakespearean moments, in the gorgeous surroundings of the gardens; and one of last season’s highlights was Nicole Cooper’s performance as a troubled Princess Hamlet, in Gordon Barr’s outdoor production of what is possibly Shakespeare’s best-known play. Cross-gender casting has become ever more popular in Shakespeare productions in recent years, not least as a way of overcoming the five-to-one bias in favour of male actors in traditional classic theatre; as a result, we’ve seen Glenda Jackson’s King Lear at the Old Vic, Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia at the National Theatre, and Harriet Walter’s Brutus at the Donmar Warehouse.
Yet long before the current wave of interest in Shakespearean gender-switching, Gordon Barr’s company - now in its 19th year - was pioneering the idea, with some exceptionally bold casting decisions. In recent years, we’ve seen a female Queen Lear, a male Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and, in 2016, Nicole Cooper’s award-winning performance as a female warrior Coriolanus, who - on the night after the EU referendum - almost brought the house down with her famous aristocratic cry against the perils of democracy.
In this extract, though, Nicole Cooper returns to last year’s thoughtful and infinitely nuanced Hamlet, a female heir to the Danish throne overwhelmed with grief at the death of her father, and at her mother’s over-hasty remarriage to her ambitious uncle. We are used to seeing this speech - “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt...” as an expression of Hamlet’s Oedipal rage and despair over his mother’s betrayal, as he sees it.
Yet female children, too, can feel deeply wounded by parents who seem to have breached vital family bonds; and in Gordon Barr’s production, and Cooper’s superb performance, it is deeply moving to watch a princess carry the burden of the play’s famous transition between an old world of bloody machismo and vengeance, and a new one - briefly glimpsed - of grief fully acknowledged, and of open vulnerability, as well as of intellectual playfulness, creative joy, and love.
Last year’s Bard season was titled “Muse of Fire”; and here as in the even more famous “To be or not to be…” speech, we see Hamlet struggling with suicidal feelings of futility and despair, even while the blazing power and vividness of the language, in Shakespeare’s timeless poetry, calls us back to life, in all its beauty, pain and joy.
The next Bard In The Botanics season will take place at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, from June to August 2021, www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk
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