I’m a bit of a Handlebards groupie. Handlebards? Yes, the always effervescently inventive troupe (one male combo of four actors, one female combo of four actors) who cycle the country carrying all they need with them to one-night-only venues, in the grounds of stately homes, museums, city parks to present their season’s Shakespeare play in the open air, come rain, come shine.
I’ve been to five productions now, two male, two female, and one … well, we’ll come to that in a minute.
One night was so wet that players and audience alike took refuge in a castle keep. One evening was bright and sunny, as was another, if a little windy. Last year was fine until after the interval. Then the heavens opened. We were well-provided with rain gear but got utterly soaked anyway. The players, their hair plastered to their scalps and water streaming down their faces, their clothes sodden, dripping and rendered translucent by the unremitting downpour played on. What a team! We admired their grit, and retired home to peel off every item of sodden clothing (and that included underclothes) and take a hot shower. The actors camped out on a hard floor, got up the following morning and cycled to their next venue.
Covid 19 put a stop to this year’s plans. No male tour. No female tour. The actors didn’t sit around twiddling their thumbs though. The London-based ones set about organising deliveries of essentials to the vulnerable and shielded. Which was wonderful, but not acting.
Three of the Handlebards share a house: They’re their very own Social Bubble. So during the days of Lockdown they hatched a plot to tour a play during August and September, just the three of them: two men, one woman. They chose Romeo and Juliet. No problem. Aside from Romeo and Juliet themselves, they only have to play Mercutio, Benvolio, Capulet, Tybalt, Juliet’s nurse and her mother, Friar Laurence …
These kinds of difficulty never thwart the Handlebards. Hats and wigs temporarily stand in for characters whose actor is currently multi-tasking. Props are minimal. Bicycle pumps for weapons; an aerosol; a hand-painted sun and moon; a repurposed squash-up play tunnel becomes Juliet’s balcony; a couple of military jackets; a length of hessian to stand in for monkish robes; gauzy stuff for Juliet; lengths of red ribbon for blood and guts and they’re pretty much sorted.
The actors change roles, sometimes almost mid sentence. A Liverpudlian becomes a Scot who becomes someone who has twubble with his ‘r’s. Romeo and Juliet themselves are played by a man and a woman respectively, but who knew that Juliet’s nurse sports a dapper beard, or her mother blue knee-socks?
We went along to Thursday evening’s performance. It was all tremendously rip-roaring fun, played against the backdrop of the lovely Jacobean Kiplin Hall. We took chairs, a picnic, and lots of warm clothes, because it was chilly. As ever, laughter and sheer delight kept us entirely in the moment, so we barely noticed that it started to drizzle, not long before the end. Thank you Handlebards. Live theatre is back.