First published in The Times, Saturday July 27 2019
It was only a matter of time before Nicole Cooper, a linchpin of the Bard in the Botanics ensemble, was invited to play the Dane. Having spend a decade with Gordon Barr’s company, showing her mettle in a range of roles, from Rosalind in As You Like It to last year’s Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, her progression in the past couple of seasons to the title roles in Coriolanus (for which she won the Best Female Performance at the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland) and Timon of Athens has seemed entirely inevitable.
The prospect of hearing Cooper’s take on “To be, or not to be,” is mouth-watering. Yet, in Barr’s production for this year’s outdoor Shakespeare season, the most telling sequence is Lady Hamlet’s exchange with Gertrude (Helen Logan), when the queen asks her daughter why she has taken her father’s death so personally. While Cooper’s response about the superficial trappings of grief being “actions that a man might play” elicits a ripple of wry acknowledgement from her audience, it also cuts to the heart of her portrayal.
Pic: Tom Duncan
Cooper’s is a Hamlet nearly undone by the requirement to suppress her grief. At various points her unbearable sadness overwhelms her, and the small stage reverberates with her pain. All of the pivotal scenes and encounters are suffused with heartfelt emotion, from Hamlet’s first sighting of the Ghost (Alan Steele) to her sickened reaction at her accidental killing of Polonius (Steele, again). Everything else is a mask. In scenes of feigned joviality, Cooper shows us the powerful feelings rippling beneath the surface of Hamlet’s skin.
Pic: Tom Duncan
It is an accomplished performance that confidently holds the outdoor setting without overpowering Barr’s lucid production. The eight-strong ensemble features a number of fine actors who seize their moments. Alan J Mirren plays Claudius as a smooth, inscrutable politician, with only subtle tics calling attention to his guilt. Logan is credible and sympathetic as Gertrude. Cooper’s scenes with Stephanie McGregor’s Ophelia are among the most affecting, with the gender-switch investing lines such as “Get thee to a nunnery” with additional irony. The inevitable restrictions of the staging, at the back of the glasshouses, reinforce the agonising claustrophobia of the setting.