Two Tired for Shakespeare? Try the Handlebards Energetic Cycling Performances

It’s been 400 years since William Shakespeare shuffled off to wherever he is now, and the Fringe guide is filled with his plays—possibly even more productions than usual, which would be saying something. The Handlebards, however, are perhaps the only company to get to the festival entirely under their own power. That is, entirely by bicycle. The troupes have cycled across the UK, from London to Edinburgh (1500 miles). They carry all their sets and costumes with them, and stop along the way to perform at various venues, most of them outdoors.

One night we’re sleeping on the floor of a Portakabin, surrounded by vegetables; and another we all have double beds to ourselves in a National Trust property

Although they’re sadly no longer running their Secret Shakespeare shows, in which the audience cycles along with them to an undisclosed performance location, this year they’ve brought two troupes with two shows apiece. The all-male bards, (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge, Liam Mansfield, Paul Hilliar, and Matt Maltby), are performing Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III, while the all-female troupe will be performing The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet. All the productions are performed outdoors in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens, whatever the weather.

The Handlebards are more than just very physically active actors—their inventive shows offer a highly comic and clever treatment of Shakespeare, one that allows for ad-libbing, songs, audience participation, and general silliness. Broadway Baby’s Lauren Moreau visited the male bards in the Gardens before one of their shows and chatted with them about their tour experiences so far.

LM: How did you all become Handlebards? What made you join such a non-traditional touring company?

Matt: I’d seen the Handlebards before; I done this big night where lots of Shakespeare companies all work together and do lots of different scenes. It was the best and funniest thing there that night, by such a long way, and I just fell in love with it, before I really knew what they did. So when the audition came up, and the opportunity to have an adventure… I’d wanted to go backpacking for ages, but I’d always gone, “No, I’ve got to focus on work and career.” And actually, the idea of getting to see the UK, most of which I hadn’t really seen, and getting to do the shows, which looked like so much fun, and are so much fun…

Liam: Yeah, I had a couple of friends who were auditioning, and I’d heard about it, but I didn’t really know much about it, and then looking into it I just thought it sounded like a good adventure. And being paid to have an adventure is a nice way to do it. I’m not saying that I was a cyclist beforehand; it wasn’t something that I did or knew how to do...

Paul: You just wanted to spite them by getting it, didn’t you? [laughter]

Stanton: I heard about it through friends as well. Two of my friends wrote in, because there’s a written application first, and then if they deem that you are worthy, you get an audition. And I nearly didn’t get an audition.

Matt: There’s a section on the application form, where you’re told “Can you put something here that will make us laugh,” and Stanton’s was just astonishing, the directors still talk about it.

Stanton: I made a video where I went around asking people - paying people - to answer questions. So I went around asking, “Quickly, for a pound, name a celebrity that you hate.” A lot of people sort of reacted with fear, or ran away from me, but one guy looked me in the eye and went, “Ed Sheeran. I hate him.” And that was that.

Paul: You bribed your way to get the job.

Matt: By paying random members of the public, rather than the producers.

Paul: Rather obscure.

LM: What was the audition process like? Bicycle races?

Matt: To start with they made us go for a run. And then as soon as we’d done the run, they did a thing called the 7-Minute Workout with us, which is basically designed to blitz you to the point where you’re on the floor within seven minutes. And then we’d done that, and they went, “Cool. Ok, we’re just going to do the 7-Minute Workout again.” And we got to the end, and people were staggering around the room, and they went, “Ok. Cool. We’re just going to do that again.” So at the end of that, when we’d done the seven-minute workout three times, they looked up and went, “Ok, now two hours of auditions begin”.

At the end of the night they took us all to the pub and bought every single person a drink, which was a really decent thing to do.

LM: Were the auditions harder than anything you’ve done in rehearsal or on tour, would you say?

All: No. [laughter]

Stanton: That was the beginning. That set the tone for the rest of the time.

Liam: They were more intense that any other audition for any other job, but then the job is more intense than any other job that we’ve done.

Me: And with that … what is it like, cycling across the UK and performing? I see from your tour blog that you’ve done things like beekeeping—all kinds of adventures.

Paul: It’s not massively glamourous. It’s a strange slog. Your average day would be getting up at say, 08:00, you would spend maybe an average six hours a day cycling, with an hour break where we invariably stop at a pub and have a-

Matt: -a very unhealthy lunch-

Paul: -a veggie burger and chips. And then pitch up at four or five and do the show and sleep, repeat. So, it was a bit of a slog. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t phenomenally enjoyable, and there were highs of… cycling down a huge hill at 40 miles per hour. That was cool. And there were phenomenal lows - and I’ll let the other guys talk about the lows.

Matt: One of the things about the tour is it’s so varied. One night we’re sleeping on the floor of a Portakabin, surrounded by vegetables; and another we all have double beds to ourselves in a National Trust property, because you’re often just hosted by the venue.

And then there are days when it rains… we’re outside really from about 9 o’clock in the morning until about 10 o’clock at night, because the shows are outside. So you’re outside for fourteen, fifteen hours a day, and it’s been a very wet summer…and when it’s rained on you for fourteen hours straight, and you can’t believe you’re about to do a show outside…that’s the hard part of the journey. But you just always know that tomorrow’s going to be different. You could be beekeeping.

Liam: When you do a show in a theatre, generally, things don’t go wrong. Tents don’t fall over. You don’t get attacked by peacocks. Things like that don’t happen when you’re in a normal theatre.

LM: You must be the only performers that think the Fringe feels like a break, because you’re finally in one place.

Matt: We arrive knowing that we know the shows and that we can do them—and also, not having to do thirty miles of cycling every day. We get to sleep in the same bed for a month, which, when you have not stayed in the same place for more than three days in a row, is an extraordinary luxury. It’s funny how the tour will make you appreciative of very basic things, like having more than three clean t-shirts.

LM: How much do the shows change over the course of the tour?

Matt: Some things are born out of necessity, and then stay. For instance, Stanton has a moment in Richard III where he wanders off the stage for a really long period of time, in any given direction. And we did that in a place which was very small, and there was nowhere for him to go, apart from a hedge. So Stanton just walked, and none of us stopped him. And he just went straight into the hedge, and fell down. And it was one of the funniest things that any of us had ever seen. So for pretty much every show since then, you’ve found a hedge to walk into. Or an object, of some kind.

Stanton: I’ve fallen over, yeah.

Matt: That sort of thing happens. But also, you learn quite quickly. Because it’s a comedy, you learn what’s working and what’s not.

Stanton: I guess that’s the biggest luxury of travelling and doing the plays, that you for the most part have really forgiving audiences, audiences that are on your side. So if you do try something out that’s new, even if it crashes and burns, it’s not going to crash and burn as badly as it could.

Matt: I mean, do you remember the musical version….

Stanton: …of Richard and Elizabeth. Which didn’t necessarily work particularly well.

Matt: It didn’t not work! People liked it.

Stanton: It didn’t work; it wasn’t refined (laughter). We abandoned it…

Liam: You just have to try new things. We do have the freedom to do that, which we were partly given by the producers and the directors, who let us try stuff.

Matt: In the shows, we each have a Handlebard character, so underneath all the characters we play there’s an actor who has various qualities. So mine, for instance, is late to Richard III, is a bit forgetful and all over the place. And Stanton’s, obviously, thinks that it’s a musical, and he’s constantly trying to push that. And we did try…I think only once…the idea that he would burst into song, and make Liam do a song. And the confrontation between Richard III and Elizabeth was a musical, and Paul and I were there, doing some backing accompaniment. It did kind of work, but eventually we just decided it was…

Stanton: Too long. [laughter]

Matt: But that is the sort of thing we tried out once; it was never seen again. But, it was a fun attempt. And that is the sort of thing that will happen.

Paul: One of the best things about the Handlebards is that there is a lot of interaction with the audience, which is a very special thing that you can’t always do in a conventional theatre space, because there can be a kind of stuffy snobbery around Shakespeare, and indeed lots of other kinds of theatre. I think we celebrate the fact that we can talk to the audience. Some of us, maybe me, take it too far a lot of the time, but it’s a wonderful thing to be able to directly involve the audience in so many ways. Which I think we do in a light-hearted and nice way. It makes the Handlebards very different to other things you’ll see.

LM: There’s ad-libbing, and you don’t get that in a lot of Shakespeare productions. And I think that’s a nice way to see Shakespeare for the first time—it makes it much more accessible.

Matt: Yeah, I think we’re very accessible. We don’t have much to hide behind. If for instance, the set collapses, we can’t turn off the lights and put the set back up with the help of our stage managers, and start the play again. It’s just the four of us there, and we have to put the set back together. So if the set collapses, like it did yesterday when you saw the show, that has to be a part of the show—and I defy anyone to make that part of the show without ad-libbing. You have to explain to the audience that the palace has just collapsed.

Liam: We really just go with it, that something’s gone wrong.

LM: I guess to you don’t want them to be paying attention to the peacocks, for instance.

Matt: So we had conversations with the peacocks. We’ve had shows where we had to talk to peacocks in the middle of the show, because otherwise the audience was just going to be listening to them. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.

LM: The whole Handlebards approach—it’s broad, it funny, it’s not taking Shakespeare seriously at all—although I did notice that there were moments in Richard III, especially, that were left alone. You’ve gone for the funny sides of the plays, but you all have conventional Shakespeare training—has this approach changed to way you think of the texts?

Liam: If I ever watch a serious version of Richard III, I am going to be so confused.

Matt: We come with so many assumptions, particularly about plays that we know well, but there are so many different ways of playing a line or a scene. And very few of the ways that we play scenes are sort of the traditional angle on them. And actually, if you’re doing a show that’s not the Handlebards, let’s say you’re doing Richard III at the Globe, it will probably still be better if you take a couple of scenes and skew them, take them in different directions. At least, you as an actor will be better for having taken them in different directions.

Before this, I didn’t really think of myself as a funny actor and I’ve learnt so much about how to do it from being with an audience every night for three months, doing the same funny plays. You just learn an awful lot about timing, attitude, everything. It’s great. And about taking risks. I think we take quite a lot of risks—I think some of us more than others, and that’s exciting because they do seem to be coming off.

You can catch the Handlebards, taking risks and riding bikes, at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. Find them online: @HandleBards

Next up: an interview with the all-female Handlebards troupe, newly arrived in Edinburgh after their own cross-country cycle.

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