A WOMAN will play Hamlet this summer in Scotland’s only annual outdoor Shakespeare festival.

Now in its 18th year, Bard in the Botanics comes of age as award-winning actress Nicole Cooper takes on what many see as the greatest character in the dramatic cannon.

The Prince of Denmark will be the third time Cooper has acted key Shakespearean parts originally written for men, following her lead roles in 2017’s Timon Of Athens and 2016’s Coriolanus, where her portrayal of the tragic Roman warrior won her best female performance at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland.

Hamlet is one of four productions at Bard in the Botanics, which each year sees selected Shakespeare works staged in the open air of Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens or inside the Kibble Palace, the gardens’ capacious 19th-century glasshouse.

Inspired by lines in Shakespeare’s Henry V calling for a “muse of fire”, the season will showcase four of dramatist’s most memorable characters: Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III and Rosalind, the protagonist of As You Like It.

The first half of the six-week season will see Stephanie McGregor return to play the heroine, which director Gordon Barr says is one of the best female characters Shakespeare wrote.

“She’s the only heroine who completely drives her own story, takes charge of what’s happening to her,” Barr says. “OK, she has to go into male disguise to do that, and that opens up all this freedom to her. She’s a mixture of innocence, confidence and cheekiness – she’s very, very funny. She feels like a real human being, that’s what’s brilliant about her.”

Back in 2014, Maxine Peake played Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, becoming the first high-profile actress to do so since Frances de la Tour in 1979. Commenting weeks before her extraordinary performance was beamed live to cinemas around the UK, Peake, who had previously played Ophelia in Hamlet and Doll Tearsheet in Henry IV, said she hoped playing Hamlet would help make it easier for other actresses to take on Shakespearean roles written for men.

His female characters, she said, are “always quite problematic”. Having worked with Cooper for around a decade, Barr says casting her as Hamlet was “the only choice” for him.

“What you want as a director when you’re casting a role like Hamlet, is someone you know will do it justice,” he says. “Like Rosalind, it’s a very human role, an incredibly complex character. And Nicole is such a phenomenal actor that she was the only choice for me. For us at Bard, it doesn’t feel like an issue to cast a female in a major male role.”

Barr and fellow director Jennifer Dick have often experimented with swapping and blurring the gender of characters in recent years, and As You Like It will feature a range of different romantic couples cavorting around the outdoor main stage.

Meanwhile in the Kibble Palace, Dick will direct a six-hander version of Henry V, Shakespeare’s meditation on war and leadership, with Adam Donaldson as the ruthless English king who will stop at nothing to vanquish the French army at Agincourt, despite being hugely outnumbered.

In the second half of the season, Dick will direct Richard III with Robert Elkin as the last king of the House of York. There’s an irony in Richard III being staged in the magnificent glasshouse. Far from being transparent and open, the world of Richard III is dark and dirty.

In Shakespeare’s day, he was the archetypal tyrant: a cruel, power-hungry manipulator who places little value on human life or the truth, and who smears and smothers those who dare to challenge him.

“Henry V and Richard III are characters who speak to the world now and they are a lovely pair of shows to stage at the Kibble Palace on that basis,” says Barr.

“They are looking at questions of leadership and power and how power is achieved and handled, though in very different ways.

“In Henry V we encounter the king at a time of national crisis and how he is going to take the lead in that situation, whereas in Richard III we see an unscrupulous man who is unafraid to lie to get whatever he wants to achieve power.”

He adds: “Who could possibly say what the parallels are today?”

As You Like It: June 28 to July 13 (previews June 26 and 27), Main Stage (outdoors, seating not provided), 7.45pm, £10 to £21.

Henry V: June 28 to July 13 (preview June 27), Kibble Palace (indoors, seating provided), 8pm, £12 to £23.

Hamlet: July 20 to August 3 (previews June 18 and 19), Main Stage (outdoors, seating not provided), 7.45pm, £10 to £21.

Richard III: July 19 to August 3 (preview July 18), Kibble Palace (indoors, seating provided), 8pm, £12 to £23.

No performances on Sundays and Mondays. All productions are at Botanic Gardens, Great Western Road, Glasgow. Tickets: 0141 429 0022. www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk