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Irene Macdougall, Gordon Barr and Jennifer Dick - Shakespeare in Scotland Now

It's been quite a year for Shakespeare. The 400th anniversary of the English bard's death on April 23rd 1616 has prompted all manner of suitably dramatic commemorations. On television, Shakespeare has received a healthy amount of airtime not seen the BBC put his entire canon onscreen during the 1970s and 1980s. This has included an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Dr Who and Queer As Folk writer Russell T Davies, which starred Maxine Peake, Matt Lucas and John Hannah.

Elsewhere in the schedules, The Hollow Crown was an all star adaptation of Shakespeare's History plays, while Shakespeare Live! was a live broadcast hosted by David Tennant to celebrate Shakespeare's influence on artforms beyond theatre, such as opera and jazz. Even comedy writer Ben Elton has got in on the act with Upstart Crow, a very sub-Blackadderish take on Shakespeare that features David Mitchell as a hapless bard attempting to climb the literary ladder in the face of personal and professional adversity.

In London and elsewhere across the UK, there have been a stream of performances, live broadcasts and commemorative walks. In Scotland, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Glasgow School of Art, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the University of Glasgow joined forces for New Dreams, a rolling cross-artform programme of performances, screenings, music and exhibitions, all inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream. This culminated in Dream On!, a one-off mash-up of four intertwining pieces overseen by the National Theatre of Scotland's outgoing associate director, Graham McLaren and performed at the University of Glasgow's Bute Hall.

Over on the east, the National Library of Scotland is currently hosting the Playing Shakespeare: 400 years of great acting exhibition, which focuses on the great interpretors of the bard's words, including Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch.

In terms of full scale professional Shakespeare productions in Scotland, however, up until now they've been pretty thin on the ground. Thus far, only the Royal Shakespeare Company's unique touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which local amateur and community groups sourced from each city the show visited, were cast as the Mechanicals. In Glasgow, the ad hoc Citizens Dream Players, pulled together from a disparate set of groups, rose to the occasion in such a way that they existed as equals with the professional cast. Other than this bravura display, there has been little else to entertain the devoted Scots Shakespearephile.

The opening this week of Dundee Rep's production of Shakespeare's frothiest rom-com, Much Ado About Nothing, plus the launch later this month of four outdoor Shakespeare productions by the Bard in the Botanics company, is about to change all that. As they celebrate an anniversary of their own, the directors behind Bard in the Botanics have even gone as far as styling their forthcoming programme as The Vaulting Ambition season.

“Our season developed more out of it being our fifteenth anniversary than the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death,” says Gordon Barr, the company's artistic director, who will direct new productions of Coriolanus and Macbeth. Associate director Jennifer Dick will oversee Twelfth Night and a production of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. “We wanted to look at things from different angles, as we do with Twelfth Night and Coriolanus, and to look at the world that Shakespeare was part of by doing a play by one of his contemporaries.”

A feature of this year's Bard in the Botanics season is cross-gender casting, which will see the male and female lovers reversed in Twelfth Night, while the title role of Coriolanus will be played by a woman, Bard in the Botanics regular Nicole Cooper.

“The cross-gendered casting came from ideas about the trappings of gender,” Dick explains. “What makes people fall in love with someone? Is it gender, the clothes they wear, or something more? There's also this idea that in modern times, it's very acceptable for women to wear what's regarded as male clothing, but it's still not considered acceptable for men to wear women's clothes. I'd love to say that playing with gender in the way that we are is part of the zeitgeist, but discussions about gender are something are becoming increasingly important.”

Dick has set Twelfth Night in swinging 1960s London, and is punctuated by period songs lip-synched by the cast in a way that recalls both Dennis Potter's TV dramas, Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, as well as drag culture.

“Lip-synching has been big in drag culture for a long time,” says Dick, “and people think it's easy to do, but it's actually not. We've set the play during a time when a new culture is rubbing up against the old,” says Dick, “and there's something quite rebellious about that.”

While Scotland's inclement weather has sometimes caused problems for Bard in the Botanics' outdoor wares, it was the seasons that influenced Dundee Rep's choice of play.

“I wanted to do a comedy because it's summer,” director and long-term member of the Rep's acting ensemble Irene Macdougall explains. “There were three plays I wanted to do, but I just chose Much Ado About Nothing because I really like it, and it's really straightforward”

Macdougall's first experience of Much Ado About Nothing wasn't quite so straightforward. That was more than twenty years ago, when she took part in a production by the Real Shakespeare Company, whose aim is to present Shakespeare's plays in as close an approximation to how they were originally seen as possible. To this end, Macdougall learnt her lines to play Beatrice from a cue script, in isolation from the other actors, as was originally done by the players for whom they were written.

“It was terrifying,” Macdougall remembers. “You don't get to see the full play, You just learn your lines and the three cue lines before and go on. I don't remember much about the play. I just remember feeling like a rabbit caught in the headlights.”

Repeated exposure to Shakespeare's comedies make it obvious where latter-day rom-com auteurs such as Richard Curtis (who co-scripted Blackadder with Upstart Crow writer Ben Elton) learnt their chops. As Macdougall observes, “Shakespeare created the tropes we've been following for years.”

Despite such familiarity, there is no obvious answer for the absence of Shakespeare on Scotland's bigger stages this year, although the financial implications of the large casts required are clearly prohibitive in such cash strapped times.

“Most companies can't afford to do it,” Barr says. “I don't think there's any kind of active conspiracy or anyone actively ignoring the anniversary.”

Macdougall agrees.

“We've got rid of some characters, and amalgamated others, just so we can do it with the cast that we've got,” she says. “I kind of wanted everything to happen all in the one space as well, so the scenes can run into each other and you can keep the energy up.”

Bard in the Botanics have been making a virtue of limited resources since the company began, and remain largely unfunded.

“As Scotland's premiere classical theatre company,” Barr says, “our work celebrates Shakespeare all the time.”

Much Ado About Nothing, Dundee Rep, June 9-29; Twelfth Night, June 22-July 9; Coriolanus, June 23-July 9; Macbeth, July 13-30; Doctor Faustus, July 14-30, all at Botanic Gardens, Glasgow.

The Herald, June 7th 2016



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