Theatre: The women leading the Bard in the Botanics productions

Janette Foggo as Queen Lear, centre, with Nicole Cooper as Isabella in Measure for Measure, top left; Stephanie McGregor as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, top right and EmmaClaire Brightlyn as Apemantus in Timon of Athens, bottom right
Janette Foggo as Queen Lear, centre, with Nicole Cooper as Isabella in Measure for Measure, top left; Stephanie McGregor as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, top right and EmmaClaire Brightlyn as Apemantus in Timon of Athens, bottom right
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This season’s Bard in the Botanics casts women in the lead roles in all of its productions, bringing more than simply gender equality to Shakespeare’s work

Flick through any copy of Shakespeare’s collected works, and you can see the problem at a glance. As in most collections of plays from the standard western canon, female characters tend to be outnumbered by at least three to one; and in the great histories and tragedies, often by much more.

So in an age when gender equality is one of the key concerns of all respectable public organisations, it’s hardly surprising that many theatre companies face a stark choice: give up Shakespeare, or start casting across traditional gender divides. In the last few years, the trickle of great British actresses playing Shakespearean heroes has become a flood, from Maxine Peake’s Hamlet in Manchester, to Glenda Jackson’s acclaimed King Lear at the Old Vic.

And although Scottish-made main stage productions of Shakespeare are thin on the ground, and have yet to feature an example of cross-casting in a leading tragic role, Scotland’s main Shakespeare producing company Bard In The Botanics – responsible for the annual summer season in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens – has always been interested in mixing up Shakespeare’s gender categories, producing a Much Ado About Nothing re-framed as a striking gay romance, and having almost every character played by an actor of the opposite sex in a recent Twelfth Night.

Last summer, one of the company’s leading female actors, Nicole Cooper, delivered a stunning performance as the warrior aristocrat Gaius Marcia Coriolanus, picking up the Best Female Performance award in this year’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland. And this summer, the whole Bard In The Botanics season has been framed around the title These Headstrong Women, as the company not only re-examines The Taming Of The Shrew and Measure For Measure, but presents two major tragedies with the heroes reimagined as women. Cooper takes on the role of Timon Of Athens, opening this weekend; and the fine Scottish actress Janette Foggo, Volumnia in last year’s Coriolanus, now steps up to one of the greatest theatre challenges of all, becoming Queen Lear in a production set to open in July.

“There are different ways of doing cross-casting, of course,” says Foggo. “You can simply do what the Old Vic did with Glenda Jackson, and ask a great 80-year-old actress to play an 80-year-old man – and it was a wonderful performance.

“But although you should never say never, I’m not sure how interested I would be in playing Lear as a man. To me, it seems a much richer thing, at the moment, to explore what it means to imagine this character a woman of power, conducting this very difficult relationship with her children. Shakespeare doesn’t write much for mothers and daughters – hardly at all. So to use the richness of his writing around Lear to explore that relationship is tremendously exciting. When Lear curses his own daughters’ fertility, for example – well, for a mother to say those words is absolutely shocking, and it makes us think again about the absolute destructive fury that grips the central character.”

And Cooper – tackling the relatively little-known role of Timon Of Athens, in what may be the play’s first-ever Scottish professional production – agrees that for now, the dynamic of reimagining these characters as women is uniquely satisfying. “This is a very different challenge from Coriolanus, of course,” she says, in a weekend break from rehearsals. “There, you’re going straight into the heart of a warrior world which traditionally excluded women completely.

“With Timon, though, you’re talking about a deeply “feminine” kind of character, a wealthy aristocrat who simply gives all his – or her – wealth away, partly out of generosity, partly because her sheer privilege means she has never had to think about the value of money. The director, Jennifer Dick, has adapted this play so that it’s set in the 1920s, with Timon as a wealthy heiress; so I find that with EmmaClaire Brightlyn playing Timon’s friend and critic Apemantus, here we are as two women talking about life and money and the state and mankind, and not at all about men. And in classic drama, you just hardly ever get that – certainly not in such glorious words.”

Whatever the thrill of re-framing great roles for female actors, though, both Foggo and Cooper feel that once the drama begins to unfold, conscious thinking about gender often gives way to the other huge themes implicit in Shakespearean drama. For Cooper, Timon Of Athens is a great, perhaps underrated, drama about wealth, power, and the impact of loneliness on our judgment. 
And for Foggo, Lear is profoundly a play about ageing, and how we cope with the gradual decline of our powers.

“As a woman, I don’t feel I have the option of playing Queen Lear as much older than my age, which is 62,” says Foggo. “She is a mother with daughters still in their 20s. Yet she has reached a stage where she feels that some things have to be let go; this play is about why she feels that, and how that act of letting go changes everything.

“I don’t know whether this kind of cross-gender casting will become a permanent feature of our theatre; I think it may do, just like colour-blind casting, and it certainly feels right and interesting at the moment. But because I am a woman and a mother, I don’t have to think all the time about being a woman and a mother. It’s part of me that I hope I can bring to this performance. Then, as with any great challenge in theatre, it’s a matter of preparing yourself, taking a deep breath, jumping in – and just seeing what happens.”

Timon Of Athens and The Taming Of The Shrew both run until 8 July; Queen Lear and Measure for Measure from 13-29 July; all at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow,