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Jennifer Dick and Nicole Cooper - Bard in the Botanics 2018

Love is in the very open air for this year’s Bard in the Botanics season of outdoor Shakespeare plays running throughout June and July in the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. With four productions divided between the Garden itself and the more bijou confines of the Kibble Palace, directors Gordon Barr and Jennifer Dick are focusing on love and romance in four very different plays in what is styled as the Star Cross’d Lovers Season.

 Dick stays outside with a pairing that sees her move from the original angst-ridden teenagers in Romeo and Juliet to the rom-com template of Much Ado About Nothing. Barr, meanwhile, cosies up in the Kibble, first with the doomed mid-life crisis of Antony and Cleopatra, then with a rare look at Edward II, penned by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe, and featuring a gay sub current.

 If the latter play’s laying bare of renaissance era queerness chimes with these non-binary times, working with a canon in which cross-dressing is de rigeur, Bard in the Botanics has become increasingly bold at pushing the boat out in terms of gender politics over the last fifteen years. This has not only featured cross-gender casting, but has reimagined male characters as women in a way that has added fresh dimensions to a play. This has frequently been the case in Dick’s work, which last year reinvented King Lear as Queen Lear. Timon of Athens too became a hedonistic party girl in a 1920s jazz age styled production. Barr, meanwhile, did something similar with Coriolanus.

Both title roles of the latter two plays were inhabited by actress Nicole Cooper, a long-standing Bard in the Botanics regular who went on to win the Best Female Performance award at the 2017 Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland. All of which bodes well for Cooper’s return this year to play two more lead roles. This week she plays Cleopatra in Dick’s production of Antony and Cleopatra, while next month, for Barr, she takes on Beatrice in much Ado About Nothing.

 “The season as a whole is kind of a response to how the world is feeling just now,” says Dick. “It feels quite dangerous and out of control, and there’s a lot of anger around, so we wanted to look at love as a positive force. There’s a purity to the love in Romeo and Juliet. Yes, they’re a pair of horny teenagers, but there is something pure there as well. It also feels like a play about right now, which is how we’re doing it. It feels like a play about young people throwing off the structures imposed on them by their moral guardians.”

 While Romeo and Juliet are played by young male and female actors respectively, Dick’s focus on young people now has prompted other casting choices. “We’re doing some interesting things in terms of gender,” says Dick, “and that comes from thinking about what barriers young people are pushing against just now, and a lot of that is about gender, and how they define themselves in that way.”

To this end, Dick’s production will feature a female Mercutio, a gender fluid Benvolio and a male nurse.

 “It’s a subtle thing,” Dick says. “Also, the Capulets party is on a gender bender theme, so everyone comes dressed as their opposite gender. As a backdrop to the love story, to have these young people look at gender as a spectrum has been interesting, but it’s also been interesting looking at how a joke might change when you switch a character’s gender.”

 All of which is in keeping with current thinking which was arguably exemplified under the reign of Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham at the Donmar in London. It was here that Phyllida Lloyd directed Harriet Walter in all-female versions of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest. While Bard in the Botanics has yet to try such an approach, Dick sees mixing and matching genders as an important part of the company aesthetic.

 “I not only think it’s important,” she says. “I think it’s essential. When Shakespeare wrote his plays we were given an invitation to hold a mirror up to society. When he did that, the world was a very different place, where women weren’t seen in public places, and because they weren’t allowed to appear on a stage, all female parts were played by men. Things have obviously changed since then, and to hold a mirror up to society now, you have to make the plays relevant to a modern audience.

 “In terms of representation of women onstage, that can work in a classic play and shed more light on things. I’m not so much interested in having a man played by a woman, but more in what happens if you change a character’s gender entirely. I think it’s incumbent on me as a director to try and charge the community I represent. There’s still work to do, not just in terms of representation of women, but in terms of ethnicity and disabled performers as well.”

 Dick is taking an equally audacious approach with Much Ado About Nothing. While the genders of sparring lovers Benedick and Beatrice are retained, setting the play in a Victorian circus attempts to heighten the couple’s wilful outsider status.

 “Beatrice and Benedick are kind of romantic misfits,” says Dick. “I wanted a vehicle where it was okay for them to be different.” Cooper, who plays Beatrice, agrees. “I think Beatrice is so many people’s favourite character,’ she says, “She’s around this strongly articulate group of people, but she seems a little bit aloof and distant, and never really belongs there.”

 In Cleopatra, Cooper recognises a kindred spirit of sorts with Juliet.

 “In the play, Cleopatra is very much a woman who loses herself,” says Cooper. “She’s ruled Egypt pretty well for all these years, and she falls in love with this man who can protect her for the rest of her days in such a way that she can exhale and not have to worry about anything. There’s something rally giddy and child-like about that in the same way as happens with Romeo and Juliet, but Antony and Cleopatra are at this much later stage of life where it has to be all or nothing.”

 Over her last decade with the company, Cooper has played Lady Macbeth, Ophelia in Hamlet, Miranda in The Tempest and Desdemona in Othello before graduating to Timon and Coriolanus. Now an associate artist of the company, Cooper has seen Bard in the Botanics develop alongside Dick, who has been involved with the company since the start. As the sun hopefully shines on this latest season, the romance with Shakespeare looks set to be an equally giddy experience.

 “I hope the season is a reminder of the incredible power of love,” says Dick. “That power can sometimes be destructive, as it is in Romeo and Juliet, but it’s also redemptive. There are times like right now where it feels like everything’s broken, but with love we can fix it. There’s something really powerful about realising that, and that even just by loving you’re changing the world.”

The Bard in the Botanics Star Cross’d Lovers Season, Romeo and Juliet, June 20-July 7; Antony and Cleopatra, June 21-July 7; Much Ado About Nothing, July 11-28; Edward II, July 12-28. www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk 

The Herald, May 19th 2018

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