Over the course of four plays, directors Gordon Barr and Jennifer Dick not only attempt to counter the perception of Shakespeare's female creations as being mere ciphers in thrall of his male heroes in The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure. By initiating cross-gender casting for Timon of Athens and what is now styled as Queen Lear, they give strength to the characters alongside a new spin on some of the more complex aspects of Shakespeare's canon.
At the centre of all of this are a quartet of actresses who effectively lead each production. The title role of Timon of Athens will be played by Nicole Cooper, who did similar last year in Coriolanus, for which she recently won the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland Best Female Performer award. Emma-Claire Brightlyn will play opposite Cooper as Apemantus. With Cooper also playing Isabella in Measure for Measure, a radical reworking of The Taming of the Shrew features Stephanie McGregor as Kate. Taking on the mighty title role in Queen Lear will be veteran actress Janette Foggo.
“Women are at the heart of all four of the plays we're doing,” says Barr. “The season was born out of the choices of the plays we were interested in doing and the actors we wanted to work with. Once we realised how central to each play the female characters were, we just thought, let's go with it. We were also aware that we've never had gender parity with the company, and we feel we've got work to do in that respect. There's a really important discussion going on regarding classical theatre right now about gender, and about how there should be more opportunities for women, and in choosing to do these plays the way we're doing them, we want to reflect that discussion in terms of what's going on I the world right now.”
Barr's new adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew is here styled as a more questioning Taming of the Shrew? This new version combines the original with material taken from The Tamer Tamed, a riposte to Shakespeare's unreconstructed world-view by his seventeenth century protege, John Fletcher.
“Given the name of the season it's something of a controversial choice,” Barr says of Shakespeare's original. “However you look at the play now, what happens in it is distasteful in many ways. By putting in material from The Tamer Tamed, we can see that Fletcher is saying that what Petruchio did to Kate is wrong. We've set it in the 1950s, when society was still steeped in old-fashioned attitudes towards women, but where things were beginning to change, and by doing it the way we're doing it, Kate gets her chance to fight back.”
The production of Timon of Athens that opens the same night has no need for such a reinvention.
“It's so rarely done,” says Barr, “but is such a prescient play for now. It explores capitalism and greed, and the selfishness that breeds, and it's really about how you have to get beyond that and start looking after your fellow human beings. As is the case with Shakespeare, there are scenes in it that could be about what's happening now, and Jennifer's setting it in the 1920s, so it has references in it to the Wall Street crash.”
While Cooper plays Timon, “this is one where cross-gender casting doesn't make a massive difference. It's still a strong and powerful role, whether it's played by a man or a woman.”
Queen Lear, on the other hand, was what Barr describes as a no-brainer in terms of what approach to take.
“Jen has been working towards this production for three years,” says Barr, “and after all the publicity surrounding Glenda Jackson playing Lear in London, we nearly put it on hold, but I think our approach is different to that. Jen wants Janette to play it as a woman, a queen and a mother, and for audiences to be able to see the consequences of that.”
Foggo comes to Lear after forty years experience as an actress, including playing opposite Cooper in last year's Bard in the Botanics season as the mother of Coriolanus.
“There's not a lot in Shakespeare about mothers and daughters,” Foggo says, “which is one of the things that interested me in playing Lear. It's not a part I'd necessarily want to do, but having just spent three months with the text at my side, all the questions the play asks about power and everything else besides, it gives you every answer you require, as any great play will do.
“One of the issues for women in classical drama is that they are completely isolated in a world of men. That's the same whether it's Lady Macbeth or Ophelia or Desdemona. They are all women living in a world of men, and that has an effect on how we talk and think about women.
“The thing about Lear is that, although there are three daughters in it, it's essentially a play about masculinity. A male actor can leave drama school and he could spend an entire career playing different parts in the play. There isn't a play that has that kind of range for women. Of course, doing it this way changes things a bit. The dynamic is different, But I'm a mature, sophisticated woman who's been around a bit, and why shouldn't I play a woman in power in this way?”
The final play in the season will be Measure for Measure, in which the focus will be on Isabella.
“Isabella's not the most popular of Shakespeare's women,” says Barr. “She can be seen as cold, but in the play she's asked to be raped to save someone's life, and that's not okay.”
In this way, the These Headstrong Women season is as much a critique of Shakespeare as a dramatic rendering of his work. Not everyone would approve. One of the most vocal detractors of onstage equality of late was playwright Ronald Harwood, author of The Dresser. Harwood made his objections to Glenda Jackson playing Lear plain.
“He said that if Shakespeare had wanted to write the character as a woman then he would've done so,” says Barr. “Well, he wouldn't, because he had fourteen year old boys playing all his women characters. We want to celebrate the plays by cross gender casting in the way we are doing, and looking at all the complex characters that can help create.
“Doing it in this way is less tokenistic now. I don't think we've ever done a season where there's not been some kind of cross-gender casting, but I think it's important to say that there are as many women on this planet as there are men. For us, it's about finding out all the different things the plays can be.”
Bard in the Botanics' These Headstrong Women season begins with The Taming of the Shrew, June 21-July 8 and Timon of Athens, June 22-July 8, both at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow.www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk
The Herald, June 20th 2017