Reviews: Much Ado About Nothing & Julius Caesar, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

THEATRE

 

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

UNTIL JULY 27

 

JULIUS CAESAR

UNTIL JULY 27

 

BOTH AT BOTANIC GARDENS, GLASGOW

 

REVIEWED BY MARK BROWN

 

One never knows quite what to expect from Bard In The Botanics, Glasgow’s annual Shakespeare festival. Under-resourced and heavily reliant upon the enthusiasm of its company, it is as variable as Scotland’s summer weather. Glad to report, then, that, following the somewhat lacklustre Othello which opened the 2013 programme, director Gordon Barr is making hay while the sun shines with an uproarious reinvention of Much Ado About Nothing.

With gay marriage making the news north and south of the border (to say nothing of France and the United States), Barr has turned his outdoor staging of Shakespeare’s tale of romance and skulduggery into a midsummer night’s gay sex comedy. Gone is Beatrice – sharp-witted niece of Leonato, Governor of Messina – whose attraction to blue-blooded army officer Benedick is well disguised by a mutually vicious battle of wits. In her stead enter Bertram, the governor’s equally witty nephew who, everyone agrees, would be the perfect match for the handsome Benedick.

Set, somewhat optimistically, in modern day Sicily, the play finds the people of Messina to be a very liberal bunch indeed, with the governor and, even, the local priest playing matchmaker to the reluctant couple. This innovation is a masterstroke – adding a powerfully relevant social dimension to the Bard’s comedy – and so is the casting of young Robert Elkin in the sex-swapped role of Bertram.

The mercurial Elkin – something of a Bard In The Botanics regular, now in his fourth season – has talent and energy to burn, and the fine cast follow where his clever, high-octane performance leads; not least in some beautifully bold moments of farce. James Ronan delights as the astonished, lovestruck Benedick, while Louise McCarthy brings some gallusness to Messina, playing servant Margaret as a hard-partying Glasgow girl.

As the audience cheers the production – both, one suspects, for its no-holds-barred comedy and its artistically successful pursuit of its progressive sexual politics – one has to wonder, once again, how long the purse keepers at Creative Scotland can continue to refuse funds to this lovely little festival.

There’s more cross-gender casting (albeit a matter of necessity rather than invention) in Jennifer Dick’s bravely truncated production of Julius Caesar (which is performed in the Kibble Palace glasshouse by just four actors, in less than two hours, with no interval). Cassius is rendered here as Cassia, performed admirably by a power-dressed Nicole Cooper.

There are strong showings from Tim Barrow (as Caesar, among others) and Paul Cunningham (Brutus, and others). It is, however, Kirk Bage’s powerful playing of Mark Antony which reminds us just how great the play is as a drama of politics, rhetoric and poetry.

That said, you cannot reduce this great work as Dick has done without some cost. While the sense of most of the subplots is cleverly maintained, Carys Hobbs’s costume designs prove problematic. Her attaching of neo-Roman capes to modern suits might allow for rapid costume changes (think capes turned quickly into headscarves), but there is a distracting absurdity to them (not least when Barrow transforms character in the very midst of Caesar’s death).

Nevertheless, this is a production which epitomises the fearlessness, commitment and talent of this gutsiest of festivals.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 21, 2013

© Mark Brown

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