A very Bard man
Actor Kirk Bage is a key player in Glasgow’s Bard in the Botanics festival. He tells Mark Brown why performing outdoor Shakespeare is like being a stand-up comedian
If anyone has come to symbolise Bard in the Botanics (BiB), Scotland’s only annual Shakespeare festival, it is actor Kirk Bage. Since his debut season in 2002, Bage has played in no fewer than 10 summer programmes in the splendid environs of Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens.
In this, the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, the actor will play Sir Toby Belch in the festival’s opening show, Twelfth Night, and the eponymous lead in Macbeth. What, I ask him when we meet during rehearsals at the Botanics, brings him back to this celebration of Shakespeare year after year?
“It’s become a bit of an extended family to me”, the 42-year-old says of BiB. “It’s a time of the year I really look forward to.
“I split my time between Scotland and London. No matter what I’m doing in London, I always think on to when it’s going to get back round to June and I come back here.”
Bage, who hails from Yorkshire, has played many leading parts at the festival over the years, from the title role in Richard III to Iago (in Othello) and Shylock (in The Merchant Of Venice). A graduate of the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London (now part of the Central School of Speech and Drama), he belongs to a celebrated alumni that includes such well-known actors as Minnie Driver and Terence Stamp.
His training at Webber Douglas is unlikely to have prepared him for the challenges of playing Shakespeare outdoors in Glasgow. Yet Bage has proved himself to be an actor of considerable range, who combines the robustness required to perform the Bard’s work in the gardens with the subtlety needed to maintain the poetry of the plays.
“Working outside every day is just a treat”, he says. Playing Shakespeare in the Botanics isn’t always a romantic proposition, however.
The most obvious drawback is the famously variable Scottish weather, which is no more reliable in summer than at any other time of year. But the difficulties don’t end there.
Bage remembers an incident during a performance of As You Like It. He was playing Jaques, and as he began the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech, a passing member of the public shouted, inexplicably, “that’s not Peter Pan!”
The actor recollects the moment with a laugh. “It was just such a non-sequitur. As an actor you have to make a choice in situations like that; you either batter through it, or, if your brain’s working fast enough, you can think of a comeback. It’s almost like being a stand-up comic.”
Which brings us on nicely to this year’s production of Twelfth Night, in which Bage plays Shakespeare’s preposterously named, larger-than-life comic character Sir Toby Belch. A hard-drinking prankster, whose conspiracy against the killjoy factotum Malvolio goes too far, Sir Toby is the first character Bage has played twice at BiB (the first time being in 2010).
The actor is glad to be back in the role, not least because of Sir Toby’s alliance with Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a fellow blue-blooded reprobate, played by William Foote). It is, says Bage, a pleasure to play Sir Toby: “I’m either drunk or bullying someone. And Sir Toby’s rapport with Sir Andrew is so much fun. It’s Laurel and Hardy, basically.”
The character of Sir Toby is a far cry from the great tragic role of Macbeth, which Bage tackles later in the season. I suggest to him that the key to understanding the play is to grasp the central importance of the erotic connection between Macbeth and his wife.
This sexual aspect was, Bage says, the “first thing” that was mentioned when he and celebrated BiB regular Nicole Cooper (who plays Lady M) discussed the play. We can expect director Gordon Barr’s production to be one in which Macbeth and Lady M “are on fire sexually”.
An hilarious, if cruel, nobleman and an ambitious, increasingly deranged mass murderer. Bage’s contrasting roles in this year’s Bard in the Botanics typify the range of both the actor and the festival with which he has become so closely associated.
The Bard in the Botanics programme opens with Twelfth Night on Wednesday. For further information, visit: bardinthebotanics.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 19, 2016
© Mark Brown