The HandleBards take arguably the most arduous, impressive and certainly sustainable, method of reaching the Edinburgh Fringe by cycling to the festival as part of their nationwide tour. As indicated by their brilliant name, the company fuse bikes with Shakespeare to produce outdoor productions which are family-friendly celebrations of the Bard’s work.
The company comprise two troupes of four actors touring in repertory; one all-male and one all-female. This year, I catch the four men performing one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies and a play sometimes framed, in the popular imagination, as one of the earliest romcoms: Much Ado About Nothing. It complements the company’s breathless approach to Shakespeare and the barbed exchanges between the central warring couple of Benedick (Mark Collier) and Beatrice (Ross Ford) positively fizzle. Each actor attacks their multiple sets of characters with aplomb, giving us a devilishly nasty Don John (William Ross-Fawcett) who enters stroking a cat like Dr Evil and exits by exaggeratedly creeping like a Scooby Doo villain. Some characters a pure Python, with Robin Harris delivering a bumbling Friar worthy of Terry Jones’s finest moments.
“An accessible, tour de force show”
The company are incredibly gifted at using costumes, props and audience members to fill in for characters when it is impossible for them to be in two places at the same time. One character, Hero, is portrayed as a mop throughout the production (perhaps a tacit remark on how Shakespeare underwrites and silences this damsel-in-distress) and this also transforms the usually sombre mock-funeral scene at the end of the play into a comic farce, when the mop tumbles from their grip as they walk on holding it aloft in the manner of a coffin. Props are used to great effect throughout, with the bikes utilised sparingly, such as in a brilliant instance to imitate copulation.
The cast are not only skilled Shakespearean actors, delivering the verse with enough volubility and veracity to work outdoors whilst never foregoing naturalism, but also excellent improvisers and physical comedians. The combination makes for an accessible, tour de force show that will be a joy for lovers of the playwright’s work and to anyone who enjoys theatre that is rough, ready and, best of all, eco-friendly. If The HandleBards represent the sustainable future of Shakespearean performance then we’re in safe hands.
The HandleBards’ Much Ado About Nothing has now finished its run at Assembly George Square Gardens – The Tree House but both troupes continue to tour the country. Take a look at their website to catch their next performances.
Read a review of The HandleBards’ As You Like It, performed by the all-female troupe in 2017.
Image: The HandleBards