Venue: Merchant Adventurers Hall
It’s the question that constantly haunts the theatre and film world alike: just how do you make Shakespeare “new” and put your own spin on plays that have been performed for centuries? For the HandleBards, a four piece all-male acting troupe, the answer is to add some bicycles. The quartet have set themselves the challenge of cycling across the UK before heading to Europe, performing two of the Bard’s plays at various venues along the way, using only props and costumes that can be found on a campsite or bicycle – and so, last night, plates became stand-ins for main characters, balloons became newborn babies and two shuttlecocks became a crude pair of breasts in an imaginative and delightfully madcap staging of The Comedy of Errors.
The HandleBards’ challenge wasn’t without its difficulties – the cast’s limited costume options sometimes made things a little confusing given the large amount of multi-rolling. However, the props were generally integrated surprisingly seamlessly; the cast handled the numerous character and costume changes particularly well in the reunion scene, and the confrontation between the two sets of Antipholuses and Dromios (thoughtfully played by Callum Cheatle and Callum Brodie) was well choreographed too, with the actors throwing the plate representing the two Dromios to each other with apparent ease. The unfolding of a piece of paper to reveal an illustration to stand in for Angelo whilst Paul Moss switched parts to the Officer was also a nice, and unexpected, touch.
Moments where the execution perhaps could have been smoother – hats slipping off the tops of tennis rackets that were meant to represent characters, extra hands being needed to prop up an unruly bicycle, the “unplanned” underestimation of how many actors were actually needed – only added to the play’s Mechanicals-esque charm. There was even a Midsummer Night’s Dream reference thrown in for good measure with Tom Dixon donning a broken saucepan and a paper front to play a sensitive and hard done by Door, complete with a “chink” through which the characters could communicate. Not many people can get away with having conversations with hats or mixing Shakespeare and sock puppets, but the HandleBards managed to pull it off with hilarious aplomb.
There were times when the play would have probably benefited from a little more subtlety; Tom Dixon’s Egeon, for example, came dangerously close to being grating, whilst the striking of a bicycle frame every time someone was hit lessened the impact of each blow when the striker appeared prematurely and very visibly, thereby reducing the element of surprise. However, the HandleBards proved that, when done well, over the top acting can be extremely effective – Moss was a treat as Luciana, injecting his own special brand of camp soap opera caricature to the character and providing the perfect counterpart to Dixon’s entertainingly hysterical Adriana.
All in all, the Handlebards’ energetic rendering of The Comedy of Errors was wonderfully refreshing, and the cast were incredibly engaging, even inviting audience members to join them onstage – one poor man was left speechless after Antipholus made a desperate appeal to him as the Duke of Ephesus. I can’t wait to see how they take on Macbeth tonight.