In an age when most of Scotland’s big companies struggle to offer one Shakespeare production a year – and often not even that, given the size of the casts involved – there’s no more persistent miracle, in the world of Scottish theatre, than the long-term survival of Bard In The Botanics. Founded in 1999, the annual Shakespeare season staged in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens offers four Shakespeare productions each summer, two of them large-scale shows on an open-air stage in the gardens, and the others smaller chamber-sized adaptations, presented in the elegant setting of the Kibble Palace.
Yet Bard In The Botanics – led for the last 15 years by artistic director Gordon Barr – is funded almost entirely by box office income, with only 15 per cent of its annual £100,000 budget coming from charitable foundations, sponsorship and donations. There is no direct funding from any public authority, although Barr is clear that Bard In The Botanics could not survive without the massive in-kind support it receives from Glasgow City Council via the Botanics; and the company’s box-office income is itself hugely vulnerable to the weather, with the 2012 outdoor programme – for example – almost entirely washed out by an exceptionally stormy July.
“Our Board had to go into fund-raising overdrive to make up for that,” says Barr, “luckily we had a good year in the next season, which helped. But we still discuss how often we could go through a cycle like that; and we’re always just one exceptionally wet year away from not surviving at all.”
Somehow, though, despite such extreme pressures, the Bard In The Botanics season survives and thrives. Last year, it offered Scotland its first-ever female Lear, in the wonderful Janette Foggo. The year before, one of the company’s regular stars, Nicole Cooper, gave a CATS award-winning performance as a female Coriolanus. And although outdoor Shakespeare is often the home of traditional and picturesque productions that offer conventional views of the plays, the Bard In The Botanics company have become famous for adventurous, gender-bending productions of plays like Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing, and for a repertoire that happily accommodates less well-known plays from the Shakespearean period alongside the big, well-known titles; last year’s programme even featured what may have been the first ever Scottish professional production of the rarely-performed tragedy Timon of Athens.
So it’s not surprising that the Bard In The Botanic 2018 programme – titled Star Cross’d Lovers – contains a similar blend of familiar and less-well-known plays, including one that is not by Shakespeare at all, in Christopher Marlowe’s magnificent 1593 tragedy Edward II, about the doomed love-affair between the young 14th century king and his male favourite, Piers Gaveston. The season will open on 20 June with a new outdoor version of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Barr’s associate Jennifer Dick, who is celebrating her tenth year as a director with the company, and has been acting with them for longer than that. Dick will also direct a new outdoor version of Much Ado About Nothing in a 19th century circus setting; and in the Kibble Palace, Barr will adapt and direct chamber versions not only of Edward II, but of Shakespeare’s mighty love-story Antony and Cleopatra.
“Romeo and Juliet are the original star-cross’d lovers,” says Dick, “and everyone knows that their story ends in terrible sadness and loss. Yet there’s something so fresh and truthful about the play’s portrayal of first love – and also of Romeo and Juliet’s feeling that they don’t want to live the way their parents have lived, bound by old feuds and enmities – that I find something redemptive in it, a sense that although the loss at the end is terrible, there is finally peace, and something new can be built, as a legacy of their love. I think there’s a real message for today in there – that no matter how terrible the world seems, and how riven with conflicts, these things can be fixed in the end, and a new future can emerge. So for me, this is really a play about now, and I’ve set it in the present day.”
Barr is particularly pleased with the company of actors assembled for this year’s season, which represents a strong mix of experienced Bard players and brand new talent. Nicole Cooper returns to play Cleopatra, as well as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; and the powerful Scottish actor Andy Clark steps in as Antony and Benedick, replacing Bard regular Kirk Bage.
“We’re very lucky to have great actors who are essentially prepared to make a financial sacrifice to be part of this season,” says Barr. “We pay people, but not as much as we’d like to, and I guess people do it simply because there are so few opportunities to play Shakespeare in Scotland, and it is such a wonderful experience for any actor, to speak those lines, and feel that power.
“And as for our theme this year – well, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado have one of the great theatrical love stories; and the other three love affairs all change the world, even though they end in tragedy. Romeo and Juliet finally make peace among old enemies, the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra literally shakes the world, and Edward and Gaveston are the first homosexual lovers in all of British drama.
“So yes, I think there is a hunger, at the moment, for a great blast of that positive, transforming power of love. It sounds cheesy to say that what the world needs now is love, sweet love. But it does, doesn’t it? And so that’s what we’ll be offering this year – weather permitting, of course.”
The Bard In The Botanics season is at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, from 20 June until 28 July