The Botanics: Venue of The Month

The Botanics is rarely used as a venue, but one annual festival is a reminder of how theatre need not be confined to the indoors

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 20 Jun 2010

Since its inception in 2002, Bard In The Botanics has wrestled with two of contemporary theatre's driving forces: the continued importance of Shakespeare and the need to find exciting performance spaces. A group of theatre makers noticed Glasgow's Botanic Gardens. Gordon Barr explains: "The Gardens have a range of locations within a relatively small area – from tree-lined lawns to small, cultivated gardens – it gives you great flexibility. Also, they are in the heart of the West End which is such a culturally thriving area – it's great to be a part of that.”

Encouraged by the success of international festivals that place Stratford's favourite son in nature, the team recognised that an annual outdoor festival avoided the perennial dilemma of either updating the classics with a potentially absurd interpretation, or sticking to a recognizable formula that might fail to offer anything new. With the Bard in the Botanics, which leads off from the West End Festival, Gordon Barr has developed a strategy that combines the power of tradition with a magical staging.

“This year's programme is a perfect example of how flexible the gardens can be,” Barr clarifies. “ King Lear is a play that is filled with references to nature and the majority of it takes place outdoors so we can use the gardens in a very organic way, making full use of everything that surrounds us from the heavens to the earth itself. The grandeur and the intensity of the struggles faced by Queen Margaret require the splendour of a venue like the Kibble Palace glasshouse. Twelfth Night has a wonderfully lyrical quality, very delicate and beautiful so it's being staged with a backdrop of the stunning Rose Garden. Finally, Titus Andronicus has had to unearth a space that has a much wilder quality to suit the nature of that piece; 4 very different shows, all using the Botanics in completely different ways.”

Previous programmes have showcased taut productions that join some of Scotland’s most impressive actors with a unique atmosphere. The charm of the Botanics dispenses with the need to adorn the play with awkward interpretations, providing a traditional Shakespeare that does not sacrifice imagination.

“These plays were, by and large, written for outdoor performance,” Barr admits. “They have a scale and a scope which matches perfectly with outdoor performance and Shakespeare's language paints such a vivid picture that complicated scenery is just not necessary.” The language itself is often enriched by escaping the theatre. “As we're currently discovering with King Lear, the outdoor environment can really bring aspects of the play to life. When Lear curses his daughter, and calls on Nature to help him do it, we see George Docherty playing Lear making a real connection to the ground and the forces of Nature – it's no longer an abstract concept.”

 Of course, in Scotland, the al fresco season is strictly limited, as Barr concludes. “If I listed every challenge, I would be here all day. Weather and midges are unavoidable in Scotland but everyone expects that. It's the unexpected that brings the biggest challenges – the quad bikes that suddenly roared across the lawn and through the curtain call for a production of Macbeth, for example.” Yet experience has been a fine teacher. “After 9 years, we're getting pretty good at staging work in the Botanic Gardens but we'll never be totally prepared because a new random element will pop up every year – at least it keeps us on our toes.”


KING LEAR 23 Jun – 10 Jul, 7.45pm Main Botanic Gardens.  Previews: 23, 24 Jun at 7.45p.m. 25 Jun – 10 Jul at 7.45p.m. (no performances Sun or Mon) £15/£10

QUEEN MARGARET (adapted from Henry VI Parts 1, 2 & 3 and Richard III) 24 Jun – 9 Jul, 8.15pm Kibble Palace Glasshouse (limited capacity).  Preview Thu 24 Jun, 8.15pm. 25 Jun - 9 Jul, 8.15pm. (no performances  Sun or Mon) £15/£10

TWELFTH NIGHT 14 – 31 Jul 7.45pm Main Botanic Gardens.  Previews 14, 15 Jul 7.45 p.m. 16 Jul – 31 Jul, 7.45 p.m (no performances Sun or Mon) £15/£10

TITUS ANDRONICUS 20 – 31 Jul 2010, 8pm, Main Botanic Gardens. Preview: 20 Jul,t 8pm. 21 – 31 Jul, 8pm (no performances Sun or Mon) £12 /£8