By Danielle Farrow
The Handlebards are a troupe of travelling players, cycling through the UK and a couple of European countries, taking all they need with them on their bikes and using only what can be found on a campsite (including bicycles) for their set and props. Such constraints lead to ingenious solutions, including how to visibly swap gender, play with the gore of Macbeth and have multiple characters appear when your group consists of four male actors. Admirably, they take the opportunity to showcase the talents of others they meet, on this occasion a young guitarist called Simeon providing excellent pre-show music.
The Handlebards also present The Comedy of Errors, on alternate evenings with Macbeth. While there are cross over ideas in the playing of both pieces, and both are set against two tents, with a hanging blanket between and their bikes visible either side, each show has its own ingenious solutions and can be enjoyed for their individual fresh fun, as comedy is the focus of the Handlebards. Shakespeare’s Macbeth being a tragedy, though, is reflected in their playing style: plenty of humour, but moments where actors do connect with the drama of the piece. There were real moments of chill with the Macbeths and agony with Macduff. Only occasionally, cutting across these, sudden panto / melodrama comedy was irritating – they could afford to let a scene end with dramatic power sometimes.
Emphasis, though, is firmly on fun, and this is delivered in wash basin loads (another use of their campsite props). Audience participation is skilfully handled, and indeed, the skills of these performers are evident throughout: versatility, understanding of the text amidst fine farcical playing, real connection to the audience and each other, and the ability to play outdoors, vocally as well as with the rest of their physicality. Not all are as believable in their various comic guises, but for the most part, even with the heightened comedy playing, the actors are still connected to some truth in their characters and this is important in keeping real attention throughout the madcap shenanigans. Of particular note is the depth and vocal ability of Paul Moss, with Callum Brodie enlarging believable performance to fine comic affect, Tom Dixon making the most of facial and body expression, and Callum Cheatle reaching a true place of pain as Macduff (the others’ main characters, respectively, are Lady Macbeth, Banquo and Macbeth).
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the journey of a warrior who becomes an evil tyrant and there is plenty of blood – handled magnificently here – and fight sequences also well presented, mixing thrills with apt humour. Possibly due to travelling within Scotland, last year as well as this, the Handlebards play with the pronunciation of Scottish place names to the delight of many in the audience, likely fully aware of the mangling of these that often occurs within ‘the Scottish play‘ by companies less well informed. Such flashes of knowledge and wit are laced through all the obvious humour, and the different types of comedy, here melded with occasional drama, make sure there is something for everyone in this production.
The Handlebards’ Macbeth is engrossing, highly entertaining and sometimes moving – a great way to experience, with a difference, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.
Note: This is an open-air production, with some tarpaulin on the ground for anyone not bringing their own seats, and ‘will only be cancelled in the event of dangerous weather (high winds, thunderstorms etc)’.
7 & 9 August, 18:45 (20:30) @ Royal Botanic Gardens (West Gate)