Joyce McMillan: Salute Shakespeare, a bard for all of Britain

David Hayman as King Lear in the 2012 Citizens' Theatre production
David Hayman as King Lear in the 2012 Citizens' Theatre production
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Better than Shakespeare! cry the latest posters for the National Theatre of Scotland’s mighty James Plays; high praise bestowed not by a Scottish critic, but by the Daily Telegraph, during the show’s 2014 London run.

In truth, though, a “Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?” spirit of competition between Scottish theatre and the world’s greatest playwright has never taken us very far. And this spring and summer, theatremakers across Scotland will be joining wholeheartedly in this year’s celebrations of Shakespeare’s life and work, to mark the 400th anniversary of his death on 23 April 1616 – also said to have been his 52nd birthday.

Full professional productions of Shakespeare will be few, of course; at the moment Scottish theatres can rarely afford the generous production values necessary to do justice to most Shakespeare plays. But Gordon Barr’s annual Bard In The Botanics season in Glasgow goes from strength to strength, with the help of a loyal audience, and casts that often include graduating theatre students, and will be offering a full-blown anniversary season in the gardens this summer; and on 9 June, Dundee Rep launches a full production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by leading ensemble member Irene Macdougall, herself a great Shakespearean actor.

“We really wanted to celebrate the Shakespeare anniversary this year,” says the Rep company’s artistic director Jemima Levick. “And we’re very lucky to have an ensemble member, in Irene, who just adores the plays and the language, and who was very keen to direct Much Ado About Nothing. We’re hoping to create a series of events around the production, and we’re also hoping that the Shakespeare’s Globe company will visit Dundee later in the year. So yes, we’re celebrating.”

And beyond those full productions, there are also some special events planned for the spring. “We never need a special reason to do Shakespeare,” says Dominic Hill of the Citizens’ Theatre, an outstanding Shakespearean director who cast David Hayman as King Lear in his 2012 Citizens’ production. “And although we don’t have a production of our own this season, we are hosting the Royal Shakespeare Company’s special anniversary touring version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which local non-professional actors play the “rude mechanicals”; I’m interested to see what our community actors will make of that.”

Meanwhile, across the city, Glasgow University comes together with the Royal Conservatoire, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Glasgow School of Art to create a special combined Shakespeare project called Dream On, which will culminate in a celebration performance on 23 April, directed by Graham McLaren of the National Theatre of Scotland. And the next evening, at Oran Mor, Gordon Barr’s ever more impressive Botanics company will stage a celebration Shakespeare cabaret.

“We’re just 10 plays short of completing the whole Shakespeare canon now,” says Barr, who has been working at Bard In The Botanics for 15 years. “And if you’d told me when I was a student that I’d end up being a Shakespearean director, I would have been really surprised. I think there is still a certain fear of Shakespeare which affects both theatremakers and audiences –a feeling that if you’re not an intellectual, you’re not going to get it, not going to understand. And I don’t think that’s worse in Scotland than anywhere else – rather the reverse.

“Whatever the barriers to Shakespeare, though, there’s no need for them. He’s not an intellectual, he’s a working playwright, who was also an actor. I fell in love with his writing when I got into a rehearsal room with it, and saw how it worked for actors. And it’s the same for audiences. These plays aren’t for reading, they’re for performing; and once they really come alive on stage, there are no barriers at all.”

• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 29 March until 2 April; Dream On, Bute Hall, Glasgow University, 23 April; Happy Birthday Mr Shakespeare, Oran Mor, Glasgow, 24 April; Much Ado About Nothing, Dundee Rep, 9-25 June