Spreading the word that Shakespeare is fun, the Handlebards are a unique troupe of intrepid actors who cycle around the country, performing the Bard’s best comedies at outside venues.
The team carry all the set, props and costumes needed to perform the plays along with them, and have now pedaled over 1,000 miles around the UK from place to place for your entertainment! There are four troupes of extremely energetic bards, cycling about the country. The girls teams and the boys teams each present a different play. The girls are performing Romeo and Juliet this year, and the boys are tackling Twelfth Night.
I saw the boys in coloured socks in Twelfth night mode, with the unique background of Northumberlandia, otherwise known as the Lady of the North, which is a huge land sculpture in the shape of a reclining female figure up in beautiful Northumberland.
The Handlebard’s version of Shakespeare is about as accessible an interpretation of our greatest playwright as you can get. Highly energetic, fast furious and funny, the boys made the most of every second of physical comedy in an environmentally sustainable performance.
There are only four actors in the cast, but they cover a multitude of characters, with quick fire pings of a bicycle bell heralding a swift change of props or costume. As more characters are required, members of the audience are drafted in as needed, and often a character may be represented merely by a disembodied hat or jacket for a whole scene.
The Handlebards are fantastic at engaging the audience. Some lucky folk in the front row got to throw water in the faces of the actors when the cue ‘storm’ came, and there is a lot of stealing of food and booze from assorted picnics in the crowd. All kinds of food and drink are incorporated into the play as they go along, and no on seems to mind when their comestibles are swiped from under their very noses by the mischievous boys. When Malvolio did something suggestive with a cherry Bakewell during our performance, everyone joined in with the joke.
There are quite lot of scenes where Mark Collier as a comedy lady character, wrestles with his balloon breasts, ever increasing in size which quite regularly explode. It’s universal comedy, no previous Shakespearean knowledge required.
Even parts of the bikes are used in the play. A cog turns up as a ring, a bike light as a precious jewel, and the curate’s cross appears to be made of bicycle spanners.
As a repertory company, the Handlebards were formed in 2012 by Paul Moss, Callum Cheatle, Tom Dixon and Callum Brodie and in 2013 they embarked on their first cycling theatre tour, pedalling Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night 967 miles from Glasgow to London performing in outdoor venues across the UK. In 2014, they went further afield cycling 2000 miles across the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium performing Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors to over 6000 people at 50 venues. They have even been to India – although I doubt if they pedaled the whole way there.
The Handlebards shows have received critical acclaim and won the Edinburgh Fringe Sustainable Practice Award. One production saw the bards provide their audiences with bicycles, so that they could cycle along through Edinburgh to a hidden location to watch them perform! Music is a big part of the performance – the Ukuleles are regularly wheeled out (get it?) – and the boys are all rather good singers too!
As anyone who has been involved in it will tell you, outdoor theatre is a physically challenging genre anyway, but to actually cycle from town to town, carrying everything with you on top of that, gives an even more athletic dimension to the proceedings. The bards have even fallen off their bikes from time to time, and had to effect running repairs to their trusty vehicles. Towing a trailer on a pushbike uphill is no mean feat, and I salute their cycling prowess!
The boys are: Luke Wilson who makes for a very funny cross gartered Malvolio, Mark Collier who is both Viola and Sebastian at one point or another (also the owner of the exploding balloon breasts) Ross Ford who makes for a very winsome, if somewhat muscular, Olivia, and William Ross-Fawcett a compact dynamo of acting eccentricity. The cast cavort, chortle and camp about, while spouting Shakespearean verse with perfect ease. It’s all jolly good fun and a bit like carry on camping meets the RSC.
The Handlebards are very talented comic actors, and probably as fit as Olympic athletes to boot. They cycle on to their next venue on their trusty British bikes – the “Pashley Pathfinder” model. Incidentally, Pashley’s are a company based in Stratford Upon Avon – how appropriate!
Check out their website at https://www.handlebards.com/ to find out whether they are wheeling their way into a venue near you!