First published in The Times, Tuesday July 13 2021
Spontaneous applause breaks out at the announcement welcoming everyone to the new season of Bard in the Botanics. It has been nearly two years since audiences last gathered on the grassy rise behind the glasshouses in the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for the venerated Shakespeare festival.
As a specialist in outdoor performance, this company, led by Gordon Barr, the artistic director, may have an advantage over its contemporaries as theatre in Scotland slowly emerges from its Covid-era hibernation.
While the audience still has to go through the rituals of checking in online and hand-sanitising before settling in socially distanced bubbles, the experience feels comfortable, relaxed and familiar.
There is a cheering nod, too, to the transformative power of theatre in Heather Grace Currie’s staging, which places the action of Shakespeare’s sharp-edged comedy within the backstage confines of a rundown playhouse, complete with bolted-down seats and dressing table mirrors festooned with lights.
Otherwise, Barr opts for an understated approach, with the company of six taking on all the major roles. It takes a while to adjust to these switches in character – the portrayals acquire dynamism and clarity as the show gets into its stride.
Barr has pared the play to a lively 100 minutes, highlighting the comic antics of Sir Toby Belch (Adam Donaldson) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Nicole Cooper) and their entrapment of Malvolio. Alan Steele gives the standout performance as the pompous majordomo, showing us the brittle vulnerability that lives within the humourless tyrant. When he declares, after reading the faked love letter from Olivia, “I thank my stars I am happy,” the effect is tragic as well as ridiculous.
If the romantic plot at times feels sidelined, there is an appealing turn from Stephanie McGregor as Viola, raddled by the requirement to suppress feelings of grief and burgeoning love, and there are some nice ad libs from the ensemble in response to the interruptions that are customary in outdoor theatre (“Shut up!” cries Steele when an ambulance blares past).
Meanwhile in a play whose most famous line runs “If music be the food of love, play on,” Barr’s production makes enjoyable, playful use of song, from the lovely playing and singing of James Siggens, in the role of Feste, to an exuberant final routine to the strains of John Paul Young’s Love is in the Air.
Box office: bardinthebotanics.co.uk, to July 31