Tramway, Glasgow

Four stars

Until July 6

As You Like It

Botanic Gardens, Gardens

Three stars

Until July 13

We live in uncertain and contradictory times. From the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in Botswana to Stormzy’s powerful, headlining performance at Glastonbury (only the second by a black artist), we appear to be making continued progress in what the activists of the 1960s used to call the “liberation struggles”.

Yet this combines, not only with the alarming rise of the far right (from Trump in the US, to Bolsonaro in Brazil, Salvini in Italy and Orban in Hungary), but also growing anxiety about our future as a species; be it in relation to the frightening pace of climate change or the growing influence of Artificial Intelligence.

How can artists grapple with such enormous and immediate issues without mounting a metaphorical soap box and making a megaphone of their muse? That question is answered impressively by Them!, the latest work by the collaborative pairing of playwright Pamela Carter and director Stewart Laing (the people who brought you the brilliant Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner in 2013 and last year’s innovative The End of Eddy).

The “Them!” of the title is, simultaneously, the civilisation-threatening, huge mutant ants of Gordon Douglas’s Cold War science fiction movie Them! (1954) and the gender-rejecting “them” of those who self-identify as intersex. It is also, I suppose, the pejorative “them” in the mouths of people who talk disparagingly of those they consider to be “other”.

The “action” of this boldly experimental play takes place on the set of a TV chat show (which is presented by Australian actor Kiruna Stamell who, significantly, has dwarfism). We, the theatregoers, are the studio audience.

The subject of tonight’s broadcast is Laing’s fictitious forthcoming film, a musical remake of Douglas’s sci-fi flick. The ensuing conversations and film clips (performed uniformly in identity-levelling black tracksuits) are a playful, comic and thought-provoking exploration of the very current topic of the social, political and cultural representation of marginalised groups. They also broach, with some profundity, the issues of human survival anxiety.

Laing himself breaks off mid-interview, preferring to be replaced by an actor. The other guests, and their interactions, pose compelling questions (whilst, crucially, dictating no answers) regarding matters of oppression and identity.

There is, as with Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a remarkable installation element to the piece (but to reveal it would be a spoiler of a similar size to Douglas’s terrifying insects). Suffice it to say it provides an appropriately original ending to a fascinatingly unconventional and highly imaginative theatre work.

Identity is also to the fore in Gordon Barr’s staging of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As You Like It at Glasgow’s celebrated Bard in the Botanics mini-festival. The court of the malevolent Duke Frederick (who has exiled the rightful Duke, his elder brother, with menaces) is transposed to Oliver’s nightclub.

In this dubious, Glasgow institution Alan Steele plays the Duke as a repulsive gangster. When the Duke arbitrarily turns Rosalind (daughter of the banished Duke Senior) out of his territory, we follow her (and her closest friend, Frederick’s daughter Celia) to the Forest of Arden, where her father (also played, as a twin, by the excellent Steele) lives with his camp.

There, with the set transformed into an image of flower-strewn pastoralism, ensue numerous love comedies. Some, such as Rosalind (disguised as the male Ganymede, and played with wit and energy by the ever-impressive Stephanie McGregor) teasing Orlando, who is in love with her, come direct from Shakespeare’s text.

Elsewhere, however, the comedy is enhanced by Barr’s invention. Touchstone (Rosalind and Celia’s friend, played by the wonderfully comic force of nature that is Robert Elkin) falls in love, not with the shepherdess Audrey, but with Andrey, a rustic wrestler. When the pair are set, somewhat hastily, to get married, it is Steele (who else?) who arrives in the role of a fabulously camp vicar, the stuff of Ann Widdecombe’s nightmares.

Some in Barr’s cast struggle to project their voices sufficiently for the acoustic demands of outdoor performance. Consequently, the production lacks pace at times.

That aside, this rendering of Shakespeare’s comedy is a summertime pleasure.