EURIPIDES – author of the great play Medea – is a foundational figure in European tragic theatre. Without him, and fellow Ancient Greek dramatists Sophocles (author of Oedipus Rex and Antigone) and Aeschylus (The Oresteia), the Renaissance tragedies of William Shakespeare would be unimaginable.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Bard in the Botanics (BiB) – Glasgow’s annual mini-festival of Shakespeare – should this year be staging Medea alongside three plays by the Bard of Stratford.

Euripides’s drama – in which the ­title character wreaks a terrible revenge ­after she has been betrayed and scorned by her husband Jason, of the Argonauts fame – carries the tragic combination of sex and death as powerfully as a great ­Shakespeare play, such as Hamlet or Macbeth.

BiB’s Medea comes in the shape of a new adaptation by playwright Kathy ­McKean. Directed by the company’s artistic director Gordon Barr, its pared-back cast of four is led by the award-winning actor Nicole Cooper in the titular lead role.

Cooper’s character is, according to ­Ancient Greek mythology, a ­half-goddess/half-woman. Driven by love and desire, she carries out both great acts of magic and terrible crimes of passion in order to help Jason get the famous ­Golden Fleece.

Medea leaves her native Colchis (in modern day Georgia, in the Caucasus) to be with Jason. However, while the couple are living in Corinth with their children, Jason abandons Medea for the ­Corinthian princess Glauce. It is at this point that Euripides takes up the story.

The National: A rendering of Jason swearing eternal affection to Medea, 1743A rendering of Jason swearing eternal affection to Medea, 1743

When I catch up with Cooper ­during rehearsals, she is full of enthusiasm for McKean’s adaptation of the play. The text is, she observes, “domestic, yet ­poetic… it’s just beautiful writing”.

The actor is enjoying the ­juxtaposition between the recognisable ­modernity of McKean’s language and the ­playwright’s faithfulness to the grand scale of ­Euripides’s original drama. “She writes the way that you can hear people ­speaking every day,” Cooper explains, “and yet it’s still really beautiful poetry.

“The imagery is still really epic, and there are still gods, and dragons, and realms, and kingdoms that are larger than life. It’s just really beautifully done.”

Best known to Scottish theatre ­audiences for her superb playing of Shakespeare – including, remarkably, the great lead male roles of Coriolanus, ­Hamlet and Prospero – the actor has been excited to tackle the character of Medea.

“It’s been really amazing ­material to navigate,” she says. “It’s been quite ­different for me. It’s my first time ­­­­working with this company on a non-Shakespeare text. I was curious to see how that was going to work.”

To Cooper’s great satisfaction, she finds that Euripides’s story stands up well alongside the plays of Shakespeare. Like the Bard’s plays, McKean’s version of Medea has, the actor says, “a real ­miracle rhythm”.

As ever in Greek mythology, the ­character of Medea is open to multiple narratives (including the idea that, as the granddaughter of the sun god Helios, she was divine). What is not in dispute, ­however, is that, coming from Colchis, she was an outsider in Corinth. ­Euripides’s drama also focuses on the character’s position as an outsider, both ethnically and culturally.

In Cooper, director Barr has an actor who is the daughter of a Zambian mother and a Greek father. The actor grew up in Zambia, spending summers with ­family in Greece. Consequently, she speaks both English and Greek.

Both Barr and McKean were “quite keen”, Cooper explains, to draw upon her background in order to emphasise the character’s “otherness”.

“When Medea is at her most ­emotional, her most vulnerable, when she’s talking to her children, she slips into her mother tongue.”

At the beginning of the play, the ­actor says, Medea is, “willing to help the ­audience understand what she’s ­saying. She takes the time to explain and to ­interpret her words.”

However, she continues, “the further we go into the story, the less likely she is to want to do that. The more she feels ­ostracised by the people of Corinth, the less inclined she is to help them ­understand her.”

Drawing upon her Greek heritage has been an invigorating process for Cooper.

“I’ve loved connecting that part of my culture to the story,” she says. “I wanted a weapon that she could use to arm ­herself.” In speaking Greek – as distinct from the standard English that McKean’s ­adaptation gives to the Corinthians – ­Medea is “using her difference as a way of protecting herself”.

It is fascinating that it is the Greek part of the actor’s personal heritage, rather than the Zambian, that has ­ultimately come to the fore in emphasising ­Medea’s “otherness”. Initially, Cooper ­remembers, “all the conversations between Kathy [McKean] and I were about my Zambian culture, and what it was like when I first came to the UK”.

THAT question – of how Cooper was received as a girl and, then, a young woman of colour coming to the UK from southern Africa – is answered in predictably shameful terms.

“I can’t tell you,” the actor says, “how many times I was told to ‘get back to ­Africa’ where I ‘belonged’.”

Interestingly, in this context, the BiB production comes a little over a month before British-Nigerian actor Adura Onashile leads the cast in Liz ­Lochhead’s Medea at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Cooper’s conversations with McKean underlined the extraordinary complexity of ethnic and cultural identity. Despite the abhorrent racism directed at her ­African origins, it was her Greek heritage that had most often led to her feeling like an outsider in the UK.

In Zambia she spoke English and ­received an education that was very much shaped by the system created ­ under the British Empire. Her fluency in Greek, however, emphasised her ­“difference”.

“Culturally,” Cooper explains, “so much of my upbringing is ­actually Greek.” Whilst she is proud to be ­“Zambian, born and bred”, Greek is, she says, “the ­language I dream in.”

What we have in Cooper’s Medea, then, is a character who, both as a ­woman of colour and a Greek speaker, is very ­powerfully an outsider.

Medea plays at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow until July 9: