The Queen of Bard Behaviour
As Glasgow’s Bard in the Botanics festival prepares to open its new season, Mark Brown talks to its award-winning actor Nicole Cooper.
Last Sunday the prize-giving ceremony of the annual Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) was held in Edinburgh’s splendid Festival Theatre. Of the many recipients of awards few were more palpably delighted than Nicole Cooper, winner of the prize for Best Female Performance.
The actor was recognised for her clever and enthralling performance as a feminised Coriolanus in last year’s Bard in the Botanics festival in Glasgow. Being nominated for the gong was of almost life-changing significance, Cooper tells me when I meet her at the botanic gardens, where she is currently in rehearsal for the forthcoming Bard season.
Born and raised in Zambia, the daughter of a Zambian mother and a Greek father, Cooper has lived in the UK ever since she was sent to boarding school in Oxford at the age of 11. Now 38, and married (to a Glaswegian) with three young daughters, she lives here in Scotland on the Greek nationality she inherited from her dad.
Although she trained in Glasgow (at the RSAMD, now called the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and has pursued her acting career here, she has been feeling uncertain about her place in Scotland of late. “Over the last 12 months, pretty much since the Brexit result, I’ve genuinely wondered whether I have a place here, in Scotland, in the UK, as an artist, as a performer”, she explains.
“I’ve thought about it a lot. I went home to Zambia back in January, and when I got back I had a lot of conversations with my husband about moving back to Zambia with him and the girls.
“I know it sounds silly, and I know Scotland is very different from the rest of the UK, but I did genuinely feel, after Brexit, that my Europeanness wasn’t wanted or wasn’t valid. I then questioned: ‘do I have a place in Scottish theatre? Does anyone even notice my work? Does it ever have any sort of impact on anyone?”
Which is where her CATS award comes in. Just being nominated, she says, felt like winning.
“It couldn’t have happened at a better time”, she continues. “It was exactly the nod that I needed as an actor. It made me think, ‘no, you’re okay, you’re not going under the radar.'”
As any regular patron of Bard in the Botanics will tell you, Cooper’s insecurity regarding the importance of her acting was misplaced. A stalwart of the Glasgow Shakespeare festival (which stages productions both outdoors in the gardens and in the beautiful Kibble Palace glasshouse) since 2008, the actor exudes skill, emotional power and psychological depth.
Playing at the Bard festival is not for the faint-hearted. The outdoor performances place particular demands on the voice and the body, while the Kibble performances bring actors into very close proximity with the audience.
Cooper has proved to be outstanding in both contexts, not least when coming face-to-face with theatregoers in the glasshouse. Her Coriolanus, which was performed in the Kibble, avoided notions of masculinity and androgyny, and created instead an absolutely convincing, uncompromising female warrior.
This year she opens the festival in another feminised rendering of one of Shakespeare’s great male roles, Timon Of Athens. I suggest to her that Timon, the beneficent Athenian gentleman whose largesse leaves him impoverished and friendless, is an Everyman character. The character is, surely, a symbol of the human condition, rather than anything specifically masculine.
“I’m so glad you said that”, she replies. “When I first read the script I said to [Bard co-director Jennifer Dick], ‘this is like the [15th-century] play Everyman’, in the sense that a lot of the characters in Timon are symbolic of a part of society.”
Coriolanus’s hubristic contempt for the masses gave last year’s production a very contemporary resonance. Cooper believes that the Bard festival’s staging of Timon (which director Dick has relocated to the year 1929, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Crash) will also feel very timely.
Pointedly, Dick places the drama’s contemplation of human avarice, selfishness and disloyalty in the midst of the most catastrophic crisis yet to afflict capitalism. “You see very clearly who Timon is pre-Crash”, says the actor.
“You see her generosity, her philanthropy and her being a benefactor of the arts. You see where it comes from, this really lovely, genuine place. It’s incredibly human and really quite touching.
“You have moments at the beginning of the play where you think, ‘she genuinely believes that these people care about her and love her as much as she cares about and loves them. Then the Crash happens, and that makes people go to desperate places.”
It’s a fair distance from Shakespeare’s Roman general, Coriolanus, to Timon, the Athenian philanthropist whose faith in humanity is shattered. However, such a year-to-year shift is meat and drink to Cooper, who also plays the novice nun Isabella in Measure For Measure in the forthcoming season.
Indeed, Bard in the Botanics is growing increasingly confident in its cross-gender casting. In addition to a female Timon, the 2017 programme also includes Queen Lear, with the fine actor Janette Foggo in the lead role.
As Cooper says, far from being a “quirky Shakespeare festival in the park”, Bard in the Botanics “stands up against any theatre that’s on in Glasgow.”
The Bard in the Botanics festival runs from June 21 to July 29. For details and tickets, visit: bardinthebotanics.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 18, 2017
© Mark Brown