Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Until July 9
Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Until July 9
Reviewed by Mark Brown
2016, in case you hadn’t noticed, is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Scotland’s annual festival of the Stratford man’s work, Bard in the Botanics, opens its contribution to the commemorations with a bright and breezy outdoor production of the great comedy Twelfth Night.
Playing on the festival’s main stage, with the large glasshouse as its backdrop, director Jennifer Dick’s staging is set in the 1960s. It’s a clever choice for a play in which the moral certainties of the Mediterranean state of Illyria are challenged by cross-dressing and hedonism.
The conservative and self-regarding Malvolio (the countess Olivia’s steward) finds himself in constant conflict with Sir Toby Belch (cousin to the countess) and his chums, for whom life is about little more than “cakes and ale”, and, of course, a bit of houghmagandie. As if that wasn’t enough, Dick sends the play’s comic gender switch into overdrive.
Olivia is played by a man (Ryan Ferrie). So, too, is the shipwrecked aristocrat Viola (who, although she masquerades as a bloke, is played by the ever-impressive Robert Elkin).
Viola’s twin brother (Sebastian), Feste the jester, Duke Orsino and Antonio (now Antonia), are all played by women (Samantha McLaughlin, Stephanie McGregor, Emilie Patry and Esme Bayley respectively). Oh, and Olivia falls for Cesario (who is Viola in disguise). Got that?
In truth, Dick’s multiple cross-dressings are less confusing than they might seem, and often make for tremendous comedy. Ferrie’s vain Olivia is like a drag queen dreamed up by Andy Warhol. McGregor’s Feste is knowingly hip, the life and soul of the party.
There’s much more to the play than high jinks, however. When Sir Toby and his mates conspire to humiliate the moralising Malvolio, things go too far and slip rapidly from hilarity into injustice. Festival veteran Kirk Bage (who is well-padded to represent his character’s corpulence) gives a fine performance as Sir Toby, exposing the malicious edge to his debauchery.
The balance of youth and experience is more successful in this production than it is in the English national football team, and young Adam Donaldson gives a brilliant and original rendering of Malvolio. In his sharp, grey suit, he is every inch the traditionalist sycophant who would have railed against the perceived moral decay of the Sixties.
Appropriately infuriating though he is at the outset, Donaldson’s Malvolio is, ultimately, so justified in his indignation that one cannot withhold one’s sympathy from him. It’s just a pity that the famous scene in which the steward is locked up is thrown away; stuck behind the set, Donaldson, through no fault of his own, cannot be heard.
More damaging still is the director’s decision to hammer home her Sixties concept with a series of many mime routines to songs by the likes of The Beatles and Lulu. It’s astonishing that no-one involved with the production pointed out that these set pieces are rarely funny, often dull and, most importantly, fatal to the momentum of the show.
There’s no problem with momentum in Gordon Barr’s inventive staging of Shakespeare’s late tragedy Coriolanus, which is performed in the gardens’ splendid Kibble Palace glasshouse. Here we have a gender switch bigger than any in Dick’s Twelfth Night, as Barr offers us a female Roman general.
The eponymous lead is played by the superb Nicole Cooper, not with masculinity or androgyny, but as a relentless female warrior. Her personal pride is matched only by her contempt for the masses, who she considers unwashed scum. As surely as any male Coriolanus, Cooper’s character is a soldier who cannot be a politician, no matter how high the personal stakes.
We can taste her scorn as she comes up against the tribunes of the people (who Shakespeare, living in a time of enforced monarchism, portrayed as snake-like conspirators). We can see her uncompromising will spring back into place as, unable to follow the advice of the patrician senator Menenius (a beautifully nuanced performance from Alan Steele), she pulls her world down around her ears like a Roman Samson.
If Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s great play of political rhetoric, Coriolanus is its counterbalance; a drama in which rhetoric is dispensed with, and replaced by raw class power and militarism. Coriolanus is a character reflected in many a modern figure, from Franco and Pinochet to the Burmese generals.
For all its great issues of politics and war, the piece is also a family drama. Normally, there is an Oedipal aspect to the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother (played here with tremendous outrage and pathos by Janette Foggo).
However, whatever this production loses in the complex relationship between mother and son, it gains in the fascinating dynamics of Coriolanus as a wife and mother turning her back on a husband and an infant son. In addition, there is an intriguing, brief sexual dimension to the embrace between Cooper’s Coriolanus and her erstwhile enemy Tullus Aufidius, general of the Volsces (played admirably by Alan J Mirren).
Playing in the Kibble is no easy matter. The place has its own drama, of course, but the actors are, nevertheless, performing in a space that is narrow and naked.
Barr’s production, which is simply, but effectively costumed, is a tad shouty at times. However, all-in-all, its boasts a generally strong cast and a brave, bold and memorable approach to a challenging play.
For more information, visit: bardinthebotanics.co.uk
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 3, 2016
© Mark Brown