Venue: Merchant Adventurers Hall
I confess to being somewhat sceptical when I entered the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall for the HandleBards’ second show. Although I thoroughly enjoyed their last performance, the troupe’s hyperbolic method of performing seemed infinitely more suited to a farce like The Comedy of Errors than a tragedy like Macbeth, and I wondered if their antics might simply look foolish if they attempted a darker story. Thankfully, my doubts were unfounded – yes, the play was absolutely ridiculous at times, with the grandiose castles of the lead characters reduced to a painting that could have been done by a child, but it was charmingly so.
As expected, props were used in an an imaginative and inventive way: a pump was used to create the effect of smoke-like vapours rising from the witches’ cauldron, which contained a concoction of various remnants from the audience’s picnics, Macduff’s noble steed was a lovingly stroked bicycle, and a wheel served as Macbeth’s shield in a battle scene that was surprisingly serious. (Well, until the baked beans made a reappearance.) During Macbeth’s climatic confrontation with Macduff, metal was struck against metal in a regular beat, creating tension in a scene which demonstrated the HandleBards’ impressive ability to switch effortlessly between the comic and serious aspects of the performance – as Nottingham’s Playhouse flawed staging of Richard III last year proved, this is not an easy feat. Banquo’s death was also surprisingly touching, despite following a ludicrous attack scene in which one of the cast members aided the slow motion trajectory of the assassins’ “weapons” and provided sound effects as they were hurled at the unfortunate Thane.
Watching the HandleBards’ two shows together opened the door for greater appreciation by allowing the cast to showcase the full range of their talents. Callum Brodie, for example, had more opportunity to demonstrate his versatility as an actor in Macbeth than he did in The Comedy of Errors due to the greater number of roles he was required to play. Incidentally, it was a lot easier to distinguish between the different characters in Macbeth (all of the characters are played by four actors, plus one or two unsuspecting audience members) than it was in the sometimes chaotic Comedy of Errors. The cast’s improvisation skills, demonstrated through their interactions with the audiences and the way they handled outside hecklers, should also be commended
The HandleBards did not shy away from self-mockery. Their limited collection of props allowed for some wonderfully comic irony – for example, Macduff praised the “pleasant seat” in Macbeth’s castle whilst uncomfortably perched on a backless, collapsible camping chair, whilst a very male Lady Macbeth commanded her husband to “come to [her] woman’s breasts” which were actually shuttlecocks. Similarly, the cast were not afraid to highlight aspects of the original script which often put off those who struggle with the Bard’s language; characters were often seen to look completely bemused as the “rapt” Macbeth launched into one of his soliloquies, whilst Macduff’s incessant questions as he struggles to come to terms with the slaughter of his family are also poked fun at when a magnificently expressive Ross cannot understand why Macduff appears not to hear him.
In short, the HandleBards have succeeded where many have failed: through their creative renderings of the Bard’s works, they have made Shakespeare accessible and entertaining for all.