Theatre reviews: Twelfth Night | The Wind in the Willows | White Nights

The contemporary resonances are not hard to find in Gordon Barr’s new production of Twelfth Night for Bard in the Botanics, writes Joyce McMillan

Adam Donaldson as Sir Toby Belch in the Bard in the Botanics 2021 production of Twelfth Night PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Adam Donaldson as Sir Toby Belch in the Bard in the Botanics 2021 production of Twelfth Night PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Theatre lost, theatre found again – slowly, tentatively, and in the kinds of outdoor settings that Shakespeare himself would surely have recognised, perhaps with a wry smile. In Glasgow last Friday night, the atmosphere suddenly lifted after a sultry, overcast day, offering blue skies and gorgeous evening sunlight; and to a huge cheer, Gordon Barr’s wonderful Bard in the Botanics company took to their outdoor stage, at the bottom of a beautiful sloping lawn beside the glasshouses in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens, after an unprecedented two-year break.

Lost and found is the chosen title for this year’s reduced two-play season, taking place only outdoors, in front of audiences deftly divided into household groups each sitting in its own little distanced square; and the first play up is the joyful and complex Twelfth Night (****), a comedy full of sadness, ambiguity and poetry, as well as some mighty laughs, as the heroine Viola – “what country, friends, is this?” – faces up to the loss of everything she has known, and gradually discovers a new life in the strange land of Illyria.

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To say that Barr’s company make light work of the play is the highest praise; in the sense that none of its huge technical and emotional demands are in any way beyond their reach. Stephanie McGregor is a sturdy and moving Viola, Nicole Cooper a beautiful Olivia with a fine sense of poetry, Adam Donaldson a perfectly pitched Sir Toby Belch, and Alan Steele a superb Malvolio, pained, angry and ominous. In a week of football madness when the great English tradition of celebratory drunkenness has been much in evidence, there is a real contemporary edge to the argument between the libertine Sir Toby – “dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” – and the puritanical steward who “thinks nobly of the soul”, and believes that human beings should behave better; and as England abandons compulsory mask-wearing, to the delight of all the country’s Sir Tobies, it’s a debate that still divides the nation, captured by Shakespeare with a timeless brilliance that both exhilarates, and sounds a warning.

Jane McCarry and Colin McCredie in The Wind in the Willows at Pitlochry Festival Theatre PIC: Russell Beard

Pitlochry Festival Theatre, meanwhile, is making the most of its gorgeous Perthshire setting by transforming itself into Scotland’s outdoor theatre hub, for this pandemic summer. Last week, on the riverside lawn below the theatre, the Pitlochry company opened its new family production of the Kenneth Grahame classic The Wind In The Willows (***), set to run until September; and what with the theatre’s merry little bandstand (doubling here as everything from Badger’s house to the local jail), a boat-like structure down towards the water, and the nearby woodland putting in a fine performance as the Wildwood, the setting does the story proud, and creates a truly delightful afternoon experience for audience members of all ages.

For me, the main problem with the show lies in Mark Powell’s adaptation, which takes a bit of a sledgehammer to the task of moulding Grahame’s story to a modern environmental and social justice agenda. It’s an interpretation the story can bear very comfortably, of course; Grahame’s central character Mr Toad is a veritable Sir Toby of the animal world, determined to drive his motor car to the destruction of himself and everyone else. It’s simply that Powell’s slogan-heavy 21st century political language, inviting Grahame’s characters to “check their privilege”, sits very awkwardly on the the timeless quality of the story.

Whatever the ups and downs of the text, though, an energetic seven-strong cast – directed by Pitlochry artistic director Elizabeth Newman and her associate Ben Occhipinti, and led by Colin McCredie as Mr Toad – make a tremendous, generous and affable job of delivering it to the audience. And they are greatly supported by Ben Occhipinti’s joyful score, beautifully sung and arranged, which celebrates the life of the riverbank in one of Scotland iconic riverside settings, and reminds us yet again – although in very jolly style – of humankind’s unique capacity to destroy such magical places, without pausing for thought until it’s almost too late.

A five-minute walk up the hill from the river, meanwhile, in the company’s beautiful new woodland amphitheatre, last weekend saw a sadly brief series of performances by leading Scottish actor Brian Ferguson of Dostoevsky’s early short story White Nights (****). Set in 1840s St Petersburg, the story – adapted and directed here by Elizabeth Newman – tells of a single moment of bliss in the life of a desperately lonely 36 year bachelor, who meets a beautiful young woman one night by the river, and falls in love with her even while she embraces him as a friend and brother, telling him the story of her passionate love for another man.

Alone on a bench on the little circular stage – although surrounded by an audience who seem to be living every moment with him – Ferguson delivers the monologue with an irresistible combination of quiet skill and pure emotional nakedness, baring his character’s vulnerable soul with a vividness that sears the heart. That Dostoevsky is a magnificent writer goes without saying; his portrayal of this young man contains layer upon layer of observation and questioning of what a man really means, when he says that he loves a woman, or wants to possess her. And in Ferguson’s performance, that brilliant piece of writing meets its match; inspiring hopes that this beautiful 70-minute show will find a longer life, before this strange summer of theatre is over.

Twelfth Night is at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 31 July, www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk. The Wind In The Willows is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 12 September, www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com. White Nights, run completed.

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