The HandleBards: A Midsummer Night's Dream

From the Royal Botanic Gardens you can see (when it isn’t raining) almost all of central Edinburgh, the Athens of the north. Where better then to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s rom com about four Athenian lovers? This particular play is something of a Fringe staple, and playing it outdoors is also fairly common, albeit a little riskier in Edinburgh, but the Handlebards bring much more innovation to one of the most popular comedies.

The kids in the audience are thrilled, the adults aren’t far behind them.

The Handlebards have got their branding sorted, but for the uninitiated, the hook is thus: the all-male company of four actors ride the country on bicycles, carrying all their props and costumes with them, and they wear brightly coloured knee socks. The exercise has paid off. The show is running and jumping from start to finish, with exuberant stage fighting and some astonishingly quick costume changes. They need to be quick, since the four take on every role themselves, even though the play often demands five or more characters onstage. The set and props are imaginative, the costumes straight out of the dressing up box; it very much feels like playing. The kids in the audience are thrilled, the adults aren’t far behind them.

The company do a good job of taking some of Shakespeare’s most well-known bland characters and giving them personality. Hippolyta’s prudish streak clashing with a lewd Theseus is a pleasing take on two characters often left by the wayside. Hermia, who in other productions is often neglected in favour of the madder, badder Helena, is also developed well, with a hilarious penchant for the dramatic. Lysander remains a bit of a default male lead, and more could have been done to differentiate him from Demetrius, but it’s nice to see the ladies take centre stage. All four actors do an excellent job of playing women as farcically as they do the Rude Mechanicals.

The Mechanicals themselves do not stray in characterisation far from the norms, but the prop work used to bring all of them to the stage is excellent and easy to follow. The real highlight, however, is in the choices on how to play the fairies. Each actor hops up and down and flutters their hands like wings, like a five-year-old might. It’s a stroke of genius, as is the quick bit of wrangling that turns two audience members into fairies when required. Despite the silliness, Titania’s dramatic monologue is soaring and glorious, and although such a dramatic note is not reached again, it shows the Handlebards can get the job done.

With a show that’s as much of a crowd pleaser as this, I imagine the Handlebards will have a lot more cycling to do – they’ll be in demand across the country.

Reviews by Frankie Goodway

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Since you’re here…

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

Touring the UK, carrying all set, props, costumes on just four bicycles, the HandleBards play all 21 characters in this all-male production of Shakespeare's woodland spectacle. Pack a picnic and join us in the Botanic Gardens. The HandleBards do Shakespeare differently. Reaching the Fringe after a 1,500 mile cycle from London, performing with eight very sore legs, the four 'Bards present a fast-paced farce of Shakespeare's best-loved play. 'An unmissable show' ***** (BroadwayBaby.com on Macbeth, 2014). 'It's back to basics storytelling in the best way' **** (WhatsOnStage.com on The Comedy of Errors, 2014). www.handlebards.com

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