By Danielle Farrow
Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is a farcical piece of fun, involving two sets of identical twins (one servants, the other masters), much mistaken identity and a fair amount of slapstick. The Handlebards are a group of four actors, on a bike tour within Europe, performing both The Comedy of Errors and Macbeth. Their promotional material mentions a ‘1930s indie-folk romp’ and, while their basic costumes of breeches, shirts and waistcoats suits said period (with coloured stockings for a Shakespearean touch), there is no real indie-folk feel. Possibly, as the brochure information covers both shows, this refers more to Macbeth.
The production is, though, definitely a romp – a fun, farcical, frisky gambol in the Royal Botanic Gardens, where the fact that there are only four actors portraying four times as many characters is thoroughly milked. Through the use of various bicycle items such as bells and pumps, some rackets and shuttlecocks, different sized lengths of material and a few hats and camping plates – all items the Handlebards can bring with them by bike – the four men swap gender, scenes and multiple characters, diving in and out of their two tents. They also make use of some very game spectators, much to the appreciation of the rest of the audience.
The performers are mostly very spirited in their portrayals, telling the story clearly despite the many changes of role, and use strong characterisations. There were times when one actor’s line rhythms were a little sing-song and disconnected, and his voice took a while to warm up and carry fully, and there are accent choices which probably relate to trying to keep characters clearly defined, but which are somewhat strange, particularly when the two sisters that are the love interests for the twin masters sound so very different. However, both sisters are played with verve and plenty of humour, while not becoming far less believable than the other characters – an achievement in comical portrayals of women by men.
Overall, the pace sped along nicely, with only the occasional time when it seemed there could have been a few more lines cut or different cuts chosen where they required more depth or more connected delivery than appeared. There is plenty of ingenuity on display to make a cast of four effective, and the performers kept up their energy throughout, with a sense of enjoyment pervading their work. This no doubt helped to gain the response they received from the ‘volunteers’ they pulled from the audience, and they achieved something beautiful when children afterwards started mimicking what they had just seen, Shakespearean language included.
The Handlebards version of The Comedy of Errors is fun entertainment, its story clear as the actors obviously understand what is going on, and it is full of rich characterisation and inventive, skilfully executed, playfulness. It is a fine introduction to this comedy and leaves its audience very happily stimulated.
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)’.