Bard in the Botanics

The Merchant of Venice

Sarah Chalcroft (Portia) and John P Arnold (Shylock) in The Merchant of Venice

If you accept the notion that ‘a sad tale’s best for winter’, it follows that a pair of comedies make the best entertainment for a summer backdrop. The programmers behind Bard in the Botanics certainly appear to think so. This year, Glasgow’s outdoor Shakespeare festival features an exciting new take on The Merchant of Venice as well as a promenade version of Much Ado About Nothing.

‘We try to create a mix of things our audience won’t have seen at the Botanics before and shows that lend themselves to the outdoor setting,’ says director Gordon Barr. ‘Merchant of Venice is something we haven’t done before and Much Ado About Nothing is a real summer play – exactly what you would expect from this type of programme.’

As Barr makes clear, it’s the potential for interpretation and exploration in both works that particularly fascinates him.

‘This is a great pair to have together because of their complexity. Merchant of Venice treads a fine line between comedy and darkness throughout while Much Ado is a romantic comedy that has a richly dark vein running right through it.’

One of the biggest challenges in staging the former play lies in how to depict Shylock, the rich Jewish usurer who famously demands a pound of flesh from Antonio. In exploring Shylock’s thirst for vengeance against his Christian tormentors, Barr has chosen to update the play to a more recent tumultuous period in European history.

‘I had a very clear social context I wanted to explore, particularly in relation to Shylock, and 1930s Italy had all the resonances that I was looking for,’ he says. ‘It was a time when the world was sitting on the edge of something terrible, where good and evil and a person’s actions and responsibilities towards each other suddenly started to come sharply into focus.’

While the promenade production of Much Ado About Nothing allows a greater focus on the stunning visual backdrop of the gardens, choosing an appropriate period setting for the play was also crucial, particularly as a backdrop to the male characters’ mistrust of female sexuality.

‘I wanted it to be taken far enough back in time to a world of soldiers and duelling, where it would be likely that a woman would be punished for infidelity. I was also considering what would look best in the gardens and what would suit the characters. We arrived at the late 18th century – pre-Jane Austen, but still very romantic.’

Inevitably, Bard in the Botanics is the kind of play season where every performance has the potential to be different, based on factors that are entirely outwith the company’s control – such as the notorious Glasgow weather. ‘After seven years we’ve got used to some of the things that can go wrong, but we still have to keep on our toes,’ laughs Barr.

The director is particularly proud of the fact that the festival is fulfilling its remit of making Shakespeare more accessible and immediate. ‘Three quarters of our audience is made up of people who wouldn’t otherwise go to the theatre. That said, the same people come back year after year so we’re recruiting an army of Shakespeare aficionados that’s all our own.’

Bard in the Botanics opens with The Merchant of Venice, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, previews Wed 25 & Thu 26 Jun, main run Fri 27 Jun–Sat 12 Jul (no performances on Sundays or Mondays).

Bard in the Botanics

Scotland's annual outdoor Shakespeare festival returns to Glasgow's Botanic Gardens.

The Merchant of Venice

  • 4 stars

Outdoor theatrical performance by Purple Star Theatre. A thrilling drama, 'The Merchant of Venice' is one of Shakespeare's most popular and controversial plays.

Bard in the Botanics: Love's Labour's Lost

Shakespearean comedy in an outdoor setting.


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