You don’t get a degree in English Literature without studying our beloved Bard. This often involves sitting through a few interminable performances by over-earnest amateurs gamely trying their best, but taking the whole thing far too seriously and treating the material with too much respect.
The HandleBards are different. They describe themselves as being at the forefront of extreme environmentalist touring theatre, and will soon be setting off on a 2,000-mile journey by bicycle covering the length and breadth of the UK carrying everything they need to eat sleep, live, as well as perform Shakespeare each night. Following the success of their inaugural tour last year, this time they will be pitching up and putting on outdoor performances of Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors at venues all over the country, including Raby Castle, The Cycle Hub in Newcastle and Ford Castle, among several other North East venues. Their style of performance is far from serious, not at all respectful, and absolutely brilliant; their love of Shakespeare is clear even as they tease and joke irreverently with the material. Basically, it’s fun.
‘The concept is in the greatest traditions of English theatre, beautifully British and bonkers,’ says Callum Brodie, one quarter of the four HandleBards. The comedic potential in The Comedy of Errors is clear, but Macbeth is a little harder to envisage as funny. ‘We play the characters completely straight,’ Callum explains, ‘But it’s the fact that it’s four individuals frantically trying to do all these characters and doing it professionally which makes it so comical.’ The group are also keen to involve local communities as they travel the country, and will have local musicians performing at each venue, ‘It makes each show a bit unique,’ says Callum.
So how exactly is it possible for four 20-something men to take on 60 characters over two plays without the whole thing crashing about their ears? Their director James Farrell has some experience in this area, having previously worked on The 39 Steps at the Criterion Theatre. ‘The 39 Steps is very physical theatre. It’s many characters played by very few people,’ enthuses Callum. ‘That’s the kind of feeling and style the HandleBards have taken on but we’ve taken it to a new extreme.’ In order to keep the performance moving they use puppetry, physical theatre, music, juggling and acrobatics. The result is a vibrant and energetic show. Director James works out the logistics of who will be on stage and what part they will be playing at any given moment and plans accordingly: ‘We’ve got wonderful Excel spreadsheets,’ laughs Callum.
The remaining HandleBards are Paul Moss, Tom Dixon and another Callum, this one with the surname Cheatle. It was actually Paul who set the HandleBards’ wheels in motion two years ago. Having just finished three years of studying chemistry at Durham University he decided that he didn’t want to spend his twenties synthesising chemicals in a lab. ‘I wanted to do something a bit more creative and it was just an idea that popped into my head,’ he says. He approached his friend Callum Cheatle who had a London-based theatre company called Peculius, and the HandleBards were born. The four HandleBards run the whole thing themselves, from booking venues and arranging schedules to publicity and marketing. They may have support from their director and a costume designer before they set off, but once they’re on the road it’s just them and their bikes.
‘We try our best to get everything sorted before we get on the bikes and set off,’ says Paul. This is not always straightforward though, as each of the actors has other work commitments as well as the HandleBards. Callum Cheatle and Tom have both worked as tutors, while Callum Brodie has been a parks officer for Lambeth Council. Paul himself has been working at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, taking on the responsible position of Candlelit Playhouse Technician in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse behind the Globe itself. ‘Every show that they put on in there is candlelit, so they have about 200 candles per performance and I was in charge of them,’ he explains.
Paul is officially the HandleBards tour manager, in charge of booking and visiting venues to make sure everything is in order before the tour starts. The tour this year is much longer than last year, mostly because the group was approached frequently after shows last year and offered venues for this year. Among the most unusual performances this year will surely be the one on HMS Unicorn in Dundee, something Paul sounds really excited about: ‘It’s just like being on a pirate ship, it’s incredible.’ They’re also looking forward to performing Macbeth on Dunsinane Hill, where the play is set, something Callum describes as ‘wonderfully poignant.’
Another performance will be in Yorkshire at Harewood House’s Festival of Cycling, the event celebrating the Grand Depart of the Tour de France and of which Living North is a media partner. ‘We’ll be performing about an hour before the peloton will be cycling past,’ says Callum, ‘That’s going to be a great thing for us to experience.’ Paul believes part of the magic of the HandleBards is that they can perform at events like this where other, larger companies simply couldn’t. ‘We can really just pitch up wherever we want to and do a show,’ he laughs. ‘Because everything we have is on the bikes we travel light.’
This travelling light affects the very way the plays are staged, and their distinctive style is sure to stick in the mind of the audience. The HandleBards are restricted to working with only what they can carry, and they only use what might have been found on a campsite in the 1930s, in keeping with the era of their productions. Bikes are taken to pieces to power various contraptions, tents double as changing rooms, mosquito nets become dresses and bicycle pumps become swords. It’s cleverly done, and very effective.
The idea of staging a summer-long, outdoor theatre tour in the UK might seem foolish in the extreme to those of us with one eye on the long-range forecast, but the HandleBards don’t foresee too many problems. Most of the venues have indoor space available if it’s needed, and even when it did pour last year, the show went ahead. ‘We must applaud the audience,’ says Callum warmly, ‘They were there in their rain ponchos, and they stuck it out and laughed the whole way through.’
One of the things the group was struck by on last year’s tour was the kindness shown to them throughout. ‘We were blessed with the weather, but also blessed with the people we met,’ Callum recalls. They set out with the intention of camping every night, and were overwhelmed by people’s generosity. ‘We would turn up ready with our tent and someone would say something brilliant like, “We’ve got this great little cottage”.’
This year the HandleBards have received funding for the first time, from the Arts Council, but Callum says they would have wanted to do it again anyway: ‘We’re very lucky to have the backing, but we didn’t know about it when we started.’ They may also be slightly better organised than last year, when they were still booking venues as they travelled, but they don’t mind taking things as they come. Paul admits, laughing, that any lessons from last year had been forgotten by the time this year came around. ‘It’s nice for us to jump on the bikes and still fly by the seat of our pants and not have everything too organised,’ he adds.
Even if everything was planned down to the last detail, there would probably still be broken bikes to fix in the rain, sheared-off gears to be replaced and torn costumes to stitch between shows, all of which has happened to them. So why do it again? Callum has the answer: ‘Because we’re young. It’s part of a challenge, we want to say we can do this from start to finish. We can produce it, we can perform it, we can make it sustainable and good for the environment as well.’ He adds: ‘We’re very lucky to be healthy and young and we’re going to take advantage of that whilst we can, and the fact that people want to see us again means we must be doing something right.’
The HandleBards will be performing across the North East this summer. For full details and ticket information please visit www.peculius.com