Fishing rods, bike bells and shuttlecocks likely did not feature on the Elizabethan
prop list for
The players’ ability to draw jokes, puns and hilarity from the text is beyond belief.
The London-based theatre group enact the story of Macbeth, the Scot general consumed by an ambition for power after he hears a prophecy of kingship from three weird sisters. Rising to the occasion, the HandleBards embrace all things Scottish, bringing more tartan to their show than can be found at the rest of the festival put together. Every pattern you could possibly imagine is gloriously brandished on everything from the set to their kilts, Lady MacBeth’s hip-flask and their picnic-blanket costumes.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is known to be a tragedy, but if the HandleBards’ performance had a say in the matter, it would no doubt be re-classified as a comedy. Indeed the players’ ability to draw jokes, puns and hilarity from the text is beyond belief. Comedic effect is incessantly created by the dynamism of the actors and their fast-paced delivery. Although they may be a team of just four, the HandleBards resist making character cuts. After all, why compromise on the character list when you have actors quick and versatile enough to embody them all? As a result, the actors change costumes and accents in a split second and use props ranging from badminton rackets to hats and ties to fill in as other people that should technically be present onstage. On many occasions, the cast resort to using you, the people sat gawking at them, to give them a hand. Before you know it you might be up and filling in as Banquo, a ghost, Angus or Ross to the riotous laughter of the audience.
The play is directed by James Farrell and performed by Paul Moss, Tom Dixon, Callum Brodie and Callum Cheatle. All of the actors are word-perfect and perform their vast array of characters expertly. Particularly pleasing is Moss’ enactment of a saucy, conniving, hysterical Lady Macbeth, perfected down to her slinky feminine gait. Dixon skilfully embraces Macbeth’s hubris whilst countering it with an endearing frivolity; Cheatle, Brodie and Moss’s rendition of the weird sisters is side-splittingly good. Hold on to your picnics when they appear on the scene or you just might not see them coming for you!
Though they are dressed up in coloured socks for the evening, you won’t fail to notice the boys’ jutting calf muscles. It turns out that the bicycle and camping accessories that feature in the play are no arbitrary choice. Attempting to perform theatre in the closest possible way to how it used to be done by travelling theatre companies, the HandleBards are not just up for the bardy banter of the festival: they have travelled from London to Edinburgh by bicycle (currently they are 1506 miles into their tour), stopping to perform along the way and sleeping in tents at night. Perhaps it is all of the fresh air these actors are getting that keeps their performances energetic and riveting from start to finish, with more left over for song and dance. The Fringe is far from being the HandleBards’ final destination: next week they proceed through continental Europe on their bikes. Beneath their kilts you’ll spy cycling shorts - the boys’ second skins.
The creativity that the HandleBards have brought to a text that is harped on about so much is remarkably refreshing. Their ability to remain faithful to the original whilst exploiting the open-endedness of the text is beyond cunning. The Royal Botanic Gardens may be a little further out from the usual festival drag, but it’s hardly a hike: the HandleBards have made far more effort to come to us. This is an unmissable show, so pack a picnic and a bottle of wine and catch it now while you can. If you don’t, you’ll be left with no choice but to grab you own bike and race the travelling players over to their next destination to catch the performance there.