Though I’m a strong advocate of all-female Shakespeare companies and productions what with their important role in increasing diversity and giving more opportunities to female performers, that doesn’t belittle the all-male Shakespeare companies doing excellent work in the UK. One of the more innovative, small scale touring companies is The HandleBards. Touring since 2013, they are a recent project of long-running company Peculius, founded in 2007. The HandleBards aren’t just any standard touring Shakespeare company, though. Four actors travel up and down the UK and Europe entirely on bicycles, performing the majority of their shows outdoors. They carry all costume, set and props with them in order to reduce their carbon footprint and give audiences wonderfully funny adaptations of Shakespeare’s works.
2015 saw Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed over 1500 miles and three months. These two shows will tour abroad in early 2016, and the new year also brings some exciting developments: not only are the four male roles being re-cast, but the company is looking for four women, too. The HandleBardettes will follow the same working methods as The HandleBards: cycling their tour, carrying all of their gear and performing four-person versions of the shows, six days a week. Both casts will often camp rather than staying in conventional housing.
In 2014, The HandleBards won the Edinburgh Fringe Sustainable Practice Award. Considering the thousands of shows that happen at Edinburgh Fringe each year, to win an award at the festival is a big deal. The Arts Council England and the National Lottery also fund their work, another mark of high quality, unique theatre.
There’s something about The HandleBards that’s distinctly British. Quirky, goofy and an attitude of grin and bear it/stiff upper lip towards the hard work, not just of touring theatre, but on bicycles as well makes an infectious combination. Their work is witty, fun and doesn’t take Shakespeare too seriously but that’s not to say it’s wholly comedy – there’s emotional balance in their performances. I spoke to the Handlebards (and Bardettes) director James Farrell about their work and what they hope audiences take away from a performance.
TSS: What’s your typical approach to a play with the HandleBards?
JF: We always start with the text, as it’s the most important part of the play – what does everyone mean when they speak Shakespeare’s lines? What is the character trying to achieve when they’re on stage? We then work through the technical aspect of the performance. [For example,] How do we perform a scene that has eight people in it? How do we turn a tennis racket or jacket into a convincing puppet? Once we have that sorted, we work on the meaning that makes the audience care about what the actors are doing – if the performances aren’t truthful, the audience would switch off. We also have visits from voice practitioners, movement directors, musical directors and choreographers to help the cast prepare for first night.
TSS: How will the HandleBardettes differ from the HandleBards (if they will be)?
JF: We’ll approach the rehearsals for the HandleBards and HandleBardettes in exactly the same way with hopefully very similar results. Emma Sampson (co-director on Hamlet last year) is to direct one of the Bard shows while I’ll be directing one of the Bardette shows. By doing this, our hope is that the HandleBard style will carry on through all four shows next year. The biggest challenge for the HandleBardettes will be how the play men. I think putting a bloke in a dress is much funnier than the other way round so we’ll have to be extra clever in how we deal with that.
TSS: Describe a typical HandleBards show in 3 words.
JF: Fast-paced, witty and wow!
TSS: What would you like audiences to take away from a HandleBards show?
JF: I love it when audience members realise that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be fussy and boring. I want them to go away having been told a great story in a fun, energetic and exciting way. For me, although we’re known for our quick character changes, I also want the audiences to feel like they saw an impressive piece of theatre in its own right.