First published in The Times, Friday July 22 2016
Staging outdoor theatre in Scotland is a risky business. Just ask Gordon Barr, the artistic director of Bard in the Botanics, who has been anxiously watching the skies above Glasgow’s west end every summer for the past 15 years.
The weather gods were smiling on the opening performance of his new production of the Scottish Play, however. As the city sizzled in a heat wave, the crowd gathered in extraordinary numbers on the grassy embankment at the back of the glasshouses in the Botanic Gardens. For once, the extra clothes, the blankets and sleeping bags, proved surplus to requirements.
The shedding of layers applied to the text as much as the audience. Barr’s Macbeth is the latest in a string of abridged versions of Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays for the company, staged simply and with all the roles shared among a core band of players. In this case, the ensemble amounts to just five actors, which might have led to a few raised eyebrows, were it not for the fact that Alan Cumming had already wowed audiences in the same city with his solo tour-de-force performance a few years earlier.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Where the Cummings-starring version located the action within the sterile environs of a Victorian mental institution, Barr’s production unfolds against the equally grim backdrop of a derelict house, with wallpaper just visible beneath the ruined walls and a few odds and ends of rusting furniture. The incongruously intimate nature of the setting lends the action the pungent air of domestic horror, which proves highly effective in the play’s quieter moments, such as the early scene of persuasion between Macbeth (Kirk Bage) and his wife (Nicole Cooper), and in Lady Macbeth’s later sleepwalking scene.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Cooper and Bage make for an excellent central pairing: she gradually shrinks into the shadows as his actions become increasingly malevolent. According to Barr’s vision, Macbeth is very much the hands-on tyrant here, personally murdering Banquo (Emily Patry) and even plunging the knife into one of Macduff’s “pretty chickens”. This feels unlikely at first, but the piece makes most sense and exerts a certain disquieting power when one accepts these macabre set pieces as a dream or projection from within a disturbed mind.
It is undeniably a bold take on a familiar text, but it does ultimately feel as though this particular production would be best suited to an environment such as the Kibble Palace, the glass house that provided the backdrop to previous memorable adaptations of Julius Caesar and Henry IV, staged in the round before a smaller audience. Al fresco productions are a rare treat when the sun is shining, but this one deserves a more intimate level of engagement.
Box office: 0141 429 0022, to July 30. Touring to Macrobert, Stirling, July 24; Botanical Gardens, St Andrews, August 5 & 6; Cawdor Castle, Nairn, August 7. bardinthebotanics.co.uk