One of the loveliest things about the Handlebards is (unusually for a theatre company) their mission statement – the aim to recapture the sense of a travelling, adventuring Elizabethan band of players, only using bikes instead of horses. Even more rarely, they completely succeed.
As various national institutions have reminded us, it is 400 years since Shakespeare died. Ever ambitious, the Handlebards have decided to celebrate with not one, but four separate productions, with the usual all-male troupe being joined by a matching all-female band towards the end of the Fringe.
The men have this year opted for two contrasting plays – Richard III and Much Ado About Nothing. As with last year’s Macbeth, Liam Mansfield alone handles the Duke of York, giving us a delightfully pantomime-esque villain with shades of true madness (though he can be disturbingly seductive as well). It’s played for laughs, but that doesn’t mean the dark tragedy of Richard is at all lessened.
The rest of the troupe really put themselves through the wringer, playing the other 41 parts with an absurdly speedy succession of costume changes – and frequently, hats on strings. But there’s a care taken with each character, no matter how minor, as each has a distinct voice, vocal tic or manner of body language to be exploited. Catesby’s pert glasses and silky ‘My Lord’, and the Duke of Richmond’s outrageous (and historically inaccurate) French accent are the best; but really, one is picking from an excellent bunch. It is sometimes hard to follow which princess/queen/duke we are currently watching – but that could be argued to be the fault of the original text, as much as the players.
Much Ado About Nothing, which is of course meant to be a comedy, fares just as well, if not a better – a riotous and colourful celebration of wit, intrigue and reluctant love. As there is no one central figure to hang the play off, each actor takes on several parts, and the audience is treated to a distinctly Pentecostal priest, an absurdly giggly Hero and several sock puppets among far too many other excellent turns. The actors rarely miss a beat, even when one of them accidentally knocks down part of the extremely delicate set.
There is sparkling sexual chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick and hilariously hammed-up sexual reluctance between Claudio and Hero – a nice touch, as their marriage starts of on a bad foot, to put it mildly. More music is used here, with two beautifully harmonised, full-cast renditions of ‘Sigh No More, Ladies’ – one to ease us in, and one to send us on our way.
Written down, it can all sound rather ambitious, perhaps even insufferable. But it really is that good – and the Handlebards have the talent (and stamina) to pull it off.