Bard in the Botanics – Edward II
In my review of the West End Beer Festival I mentioned that I’m trying to do more ‘I’ve always meant to do that’ things. The next one to be knocked off my list was to attend one of the shows held yearly for the West End Festival under the banner Bard in the Botanics. For those unfamiliar with the Bard in the Botanics, it’s that old standard of an outdoor Shakespeare festival. In this case a season of plays held at Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. This year’s theme was ‘Star-Cross’d Lovers’, the first half of the season brought Romeo and Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra to the Botanics, the second half Much Ado About Nothing and Edward II. It was at the latter of these that I made my Bard in the Botanics audience debut.
Not actually a Shakespeare play, Edward II is Christopher Marlowe’s telling of the downfall of Edward II through the lens of his relationship with Piers Gaveston. Gaveston was Edward’s particular favourite, given great favour and numerous titles, and rumours of a possible romantic relationship between the two began in their own time and have never been fully confirmed or denied. Marlowe’s play supposes these rumours to be true, making the play one of the earliest with lead characters in a homosexual relationship as well as being one of the earliest ‘historical’ plays.
This production of Edward II leaned heavily into Marlowe’s interpretation of their relationship, from the promotional images through to the staging of the play itself. This stripped-down adaptation was structured to allow its presentation with only four actors which gave plenty of breathing room for Edward and Gaveston’s relationship. But unfortunately for me this aspect of the play fell flat, there was just no chemistry between the two men in these roles and it felt too forced. Making sure there are lots of kisses does not a convincing relationship make.
I don’t think this was helped by the fact that I was also underwhelmed by the performance of Laurie Scott who played the titular character. When leaving the show, I made the sparkling observation “he was sooooo shouty!” And while not the most eloquent review I’ve ever uttered it was certainly true. I’d say at least 80% of his lines were screamed to the heavens, which I found distinctly unsettling at times. The rage dial had definitely been turned up to 11. There was also quite a lot of spittle involved, reminding me of an episode of Friends where Joey gets acting advice from a character played by Gary Oldman.
At this point you’re probably thinking, “oh god, it sounds like this show was terrible!” But I’m happy to say that there were also a lot of redeeming qualities too. The production design was fantastic, with costumes and music drawn from the 1950s, an era I love. The music, in particular, was used to great effect, each piece well-chosen and perfectly echoing the emotional cues of the play. I remember writing an essay at university about how old standards are used in rom-coms to evoke particular emotions and feelings of nostalgia and this was deployed well here.
The venue was also well used, with the walkway between the fish pond and the main dome of the Kibble Palace providing the stage. The audience sat in two rows on either side with the performance taking place between, giving a proximity that was utilised well, at times the characters referred to the audience as the seated Lords to whom they were pleading their case. While this proximity worked well for much of the performance it may also be somewhat to blame for how overwrought Scott’s performance seemed. While it might have worked from further afield on a regular stage, more nuance may have been preferable so close-up.
Finally, while I wasn’t a huge fan of Scott as Edward, there was much to enjoy in the other performances. Charlie Clee brought Gaveston to life as a smirking greaser, with a James Dean-esque swagger and Andy Clark was a figure of growling menace and disgust as Mortimer. But it was Esme Bayley as Queen Isabella who stole the show. The subtleties of her performance as Isabella went from wronged wife to conspirator to regent were impressive to behold, especially at the close distance afforded by the venue.
The play finished with a selection of audio clips over music, demonstrating the progress we’ve made in the last 50 or so years in relation to LGBT+ rights, despite the hurdles some have tried to put in place. I must admit, that I had a wee tear in my eye hearing Nicola Sturgeon’s official apology for the wrongs committed to gay men due to the barbaric anti-sodomy laws. There’s a long way to go but hopefully we’ll continue to move in the right direction, including increased representation in artistic outputs such as this play.
Overall, my first experience of Bard in the Botanics was a positive one and I’m now hoping I might also manage to catch Much Ado About Nothing before this season is over!