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Unruly Wonders - Bard in the Botanics 2015

When Richard II talks of 'unlikely wonders' while alone in his prison cell awaiting his execution in Shakespeare's rarely seen history play, it's hardly the most positive of speeches. The phrase has nevertheless inspired Bard in the Botanics artistic director Gordon Barr to dub the company's latest summer season of outdoor Shakespeare productions in Glasgow's West End with such an appositely sunny sounding sobriquet. With familiar works such as The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night's Dream reimagined alongside rare sightings of Love's Labours Lost and the aforementioned Richard II, it's easy to see why.

“The quote is about how life can surprise you,” Barr explains before heading off to rehearsals for the first of two productions in the season he's directing himself. “Calling it Life's A Bitch seemed too much, but in Richard II it's much the same thing. For us, it's about us gaining in confidence, both in ourselves and in our audience. We want to take our place as Scotland's leading producers of Shakespeare, and we don't just want to churn out the same old stuff. Some of the plays this season are things which our audience won't have seen before, but which we want them to see.”

Love's Labours Lost remains one of the few Shakespeare comedies not to have received a Bard in the Botanics production, and Barr's promenade-based affair which has already opened is the first to have been seen in Scotland for the best part of fifty years.

“Love's Labour's Lost is a play I've wanted to do for a long time now,” Barr says. “that's partly because it's set in a park, so it's perfect for us, but that's hard, because it needs a big cast, because you can't really do any doubling up.”

With this in mind, Barr has drafted in MA Acting students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as part of Bard in the Botanics' emerging artists programme set up with RCS. Given that previous alumni of the scheme include Richard Madden, who went on to star as Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, such a showcase bodes well for all involved.

“Love's Labours Lost is an incredibly dense play,” Barr points out. “It's full of really intelligent characters who use very complex language, but when you've got a core company who've been doing this as long as we have, we know we can handle that and get up there and get that complexity across. There's a really surprise ending as well, when the whole ground shifts, and which is really quite shocking and quite beautiful.”

The second production of this year's Bard in the Botanics season may appear more familiar, but A Midsummer Night's Dream is given a fresh twist by director Emily Reutlinger, who is the latest incumbent of the company's emerging directors scheme.

“I first met Emily when she was on the directing course at the RCS,” says Barr, “and she knows exactly what she wants to do. When she first came in she completely sold us on this feminist approach to the play that she's taking, so if she can sell it to us then she can sell it to an audience. The fact that she's not taking a conventional approach to the Dream really appeals to us as a company.”

Barr looks set to mix the familiar and the potentially shocking even more in his forthcoming production of The Merchant of Venice, which casts Bard in the Botanics regular Kirk Bage as Shylock as Barr relocates the action to the 1930s in his second stab at the play.

“It's a play that really fascinates me,” he says, “because it doesn't really fit into any category. It's a really thorny play. The moment the last word was spoken at the first read-through the actors couldn't wait to get into a discussion about which side they were on. The characters in the play aren't good people and they're not bad people. It's much more complex than that.”

While the portents of Nazi Germany won't be overplayed, it remains a reference that Barr sees as unavoidable.

“I don't want it to be heavy-handed,” he says, “but for me, since the second half of the twentieth century you can't look at The Merchant of Venice without acknowledging the Holocaust in some way. That doesn't mean we're going to send Shylock off to a concentration camp or anything like that, but I think we have to look at what such cowardly actions that occur in the play can lead to.”

For Richard II, Bard in the Botanics director Jennifer Dick moves a cast of just four into the Kibble Palace, which she has made a home for a stripped-back approach to some of Shakespeare's lesser-spotted plays. With Robert Elkin in the title role, Richard II is a rare opportunity to see this prequel to Henry IV.

“I don't think it's ever been produced professionally in Scotland,” says Barr. “It crops up with reasonable regularity in England, because Richard is this dynamic central figure and it's a star part, so it's no great surprise to have seen David Tennant do it with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I'm not sure if there's a slight reticence about doing it up here because it might be seen to be about an English king, but it's not really about an English king at all. It's about leadership and power, and it's about what it means to be a leader.”

This year's Bard in the Botanics season follows what has proven to be the company's busiest year in its thirteen year history. As well as developing a relationship with the RCS, Barr and co moved out of the Botanic Gardens themselves for a touring revival of Romeo and Juliet. The company also produced their first ever Christmas show at the Byre Theatre in St Andrew's, where they will return for the festive season this year.

“The central focus of our work will always be these crazy weeks in the Gardens,” Barr says, “but things are filling up rather nicely beyond that, and we're learning how to sustain all that so we can be a year-round presence.”

Bard in the Botanics runs at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow until August 1. Love's Labours Lost until July 11; A Midsummer Night's Dream, July 2-11; The Merchant of Venice, July 18-August 1; Richard II, July 22-August 1.
www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk

The Herald, July 3rd 2015

ends

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