The Handlebards are a unique group, reinventing the concept of the company of travelling players. This summer they cycled the length of the country, carting around their bicycle-themed set and occasionally pitching up for performances before arriving at the Edinburgh Fringe. Their two companies, one male, the other female, each comprise of four fully-trained young actors, and each one puts up two different Shakespeare plays. In
This is Fringe theatre at its best and most ingenious.
The acting is terrific, but this is not Shakespeare at its most serious. Clad in knee-length shorts, braces and shirts, with bike bells as rings to mark the rapid makeshift costume changes, Richard III is a fun and action-packed drama, performed in front of what looks like a colourful children’s den. Cheap gags come in their hundreds, and there is never a moment when the audience is not laughing. This is Shakespeare with water pistols, fake hands, and Python-esque coconut shell ‘horses’. There is also a ton of audience participation, with members being lured in when they least expect it. Richard III, just like the other Handlebards productions, is full of energy and action; the most trivial of scenes becomes an opportunity for jokes and gags. The costume changes and swapping of characters on stage are also something to be marvelled at; Matt Maltby, Paul Hilliar and Stanton Plummer-Cambridge go to remarkable lengths not to cut any character out, using ingenious methods to make sure all the characters are represented, including by suspending a hat on a fishing rod to represent a person on stage.
It seems that every production is entirely fresh, with plenty of improvised gags from the cast. In this particular show, the cast managed to get a case of the giggles, exacerbated by the audience’s laughter, as they performed in a scorching hot tent. They did their best to restrain it however, and disaster was averted. The characters are all utterly unique, and Liam Mansfield does a magnificent job as the Machiavellian King Richard III, playing evil in its most slimy form. The use of music also added a lot of character to the production. Some of the scenes are utterly ingenious in their staging, especially the dream scene at the end of the play, where the inexplicably (but comically) French Richmond (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge) and Richard are in their beds.
Having seen both of the highly talented female company’s performances on the Dell at Stratford-upon-Avon this summer (The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet), I was very much looking forward to seeing their male counterparts in action, and I was not disappointed. For fresh, energetic theatre, either as newbies to Shakespeare or aficionados, The Handlebards provide something for everyone, embodying the entire ethos of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This is Fringe theatre at its best and most ingenious.