When Bard in the Botanics artistic director programmed The Tempest as his flagship production of his 2012 season of open-air Shakespeare plays, to call his choice unintentionally ironic is something of an understatement. 2012, remember, was the wettest summer for a hundred years, according to the Met Office. Not that Barr or anyone else connected with Bard in the Botanics needed such official confirmation of such a soggy climate. The fact that the company were forced to cancel some fifty per cent of performances because of rain stopping play spoke volumes, even if the temptation to have The Tempest's self-exiled magician Prospero cook up a dramatic storm for real must have been a method-acting friendly temptation for the company's tenth anniversary season.
This year, however, Barr and his team return to the fray unbowed with three new productions which are being rehearsed even as Barr keeps an optimistic eye on a weather map. What Barr gas dubbed the Edge of War season should hopefully open tomorrow night with Othello, one of Shakespeare's darkest tragedies, which Barr directs for Bard in the Botanics for the second time. Next month Barr will also revisit Much Ado About Nothing with a radical gay slant on the play, while Bard in the Botanics associate director Jennifer Dick will direct a four actor version of Julius Caesar in the relative safety of the Kibble Palace. Tackling the sole remnant of Shakespeare's canon not to have previously been produced by the company should prove to be something of a salve for Dick, who oversaw The Tempest last year, only to have to watch helplessly as her actors efforts were repeatedly drowned out.
“Without wishing to jinx anything,” opines Barr, “last year was exceptional, weather-wise. Losing so many performances impacted on us financially, and we were left with quite a deficit, but the board and myself knuckled down and embarked on some serious fund-raising, so most of that deficit is gone now. But it wasn't just about money. Losing as much as we did impacted on our actors and performers who wanted audiences to see their work, but had no control over that.”
One thing Barr does want control over is his opening production of Othello. To help this, Barr has retained the period setting of Shakespeare's grim tug of love and hate between Othello, Iago and Desdemona.
“The production sounds straightforward, because the play isn't,” Barr says. “I did it six years ago, but, with no disrespect to anyone involved in it, I never felt satisfied with it. I never got the play. I love doing Shakespeare in modern dress, but this time out, I think it's best not to put anything in its way in terms of concept, and to focus on the characters.”
If Barr is playing it straight with Othello, the opposite might be said for his new take on Much Ado About Nothing. Here, Shakespeare's rom-com about would-be lovers Benedick and Beatrice going round the houses before getting together becomes an extended game of kiss-chase between Benedick and a young man named Bertram.
“There's always a risk when you do something like this of changing something for change's sake,” Barr observes. “Yet, while, unlike with the last time I did Othello, I was very satisfied with my last Much Ado About Nothing, I knew that if I was going to do it again I needed to find a new angle. So went back to the text, and I knew these voices, both from myself and from friends of mine, and I thought the things Beatrice was saying sounded like a gay man, so why not make her one.”
With the recent gay marriage bill to the fore, the issues Barr's take on the play raises are as up to the minute as can be. Even so, homosexuality itself is never mentioned by anyone on stage, but is instead taken for granted.
“By not making an issue of it, that in itself is making a statement, “ says Barr. “Shakespeare was a great humanist, and here Bertram and Benedick have characters around them who are even more comfortable in their sexuality. Part of Benedick's reticence to get involved is because he comes from this macho world of soldiering, but the easiest way of changing things is to move to a point where they have changed and present them as normal.”
As for Julius Caesar, “We've never done it before,” says Barr, “and it doesn't get done much at all because it's such a big show, but by paring it down to four actors, that allows us to focus on the play's main relationships.”
Beyond this year's hopefully dry season, Barr has ambitions for Bard in the Botanics to expand, despite the fact that they currently receive no public funding from Creative Scotland. With Glasgow's Commonwealth games year looming in 2014, however, Barr suggest that “That might be our time. We're not quite big enough at the moment to find the right regular funding stream, so we've been learning to survive in lots of ways. Survival is the key.”
Having survived the storms of 2013, Bard in the Botanics will hopefully turn out brighter this year.
“We superstitiously think we might have been tempting fate by doing The Tempest last year,” Barr jokingly admits, “but this year we're doing one play set in Cyprus and another one set in Italy, so maybe the gods will shine on us.”
Othello opens tomorrow-July 6th; Much Ado About Nothing, July10th-27th; Julius Caesar, July 1th-27th, all at Botanic Gardens, Glasgow.
The Herald, June 18th 2013