The members of British theatre group the HandleBards, which specialise in Shakespeare’s works, have quite a few adventure stories and lucky escapes on the road to tell their grandchildren.
The HandleBards’ mission is to spread the word of the Bard and it cycles from destination to destination to visit local theatres and halls. It’s pedal power that has taken the quartet all across Britain and beyond.
Formed in 2013, the group has been carrying props, costumes and all the other stage equipments on bicycles, travelling the length and breadth of Britain, just to perform Shakespeare’s plays.
Are they barking mad?
That’s exactly what Tom Dixon thought when his best friend Paul Moss, a chemistry graduate from Durham University, mooted the idea for the HandleBards.
“Paul decided to marry theatre with a sense of adventure. So he figured that cycling around the country, carrying your set, props and costumes and performing Shakespeare is the kind of adventure that he would enjoy,” recalls Dixon in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“I told him he was crazy but so was I. I joined him and Brodie joined shortly after,” he added.
Dixon and Callum Brodie had just finished performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, together with Matt Seager and Calum Hughes McIntosh for an afternoon crowd at KuAsh Theatre in Kuala Lumpur last month.
We sat down for a chat at a cafe nearby. You could say there was no shortage of energy in either of them.
They were just full of energy and zest. They had just completed performing at PJ Live Arts and PenangPac over a few weekends (from late February).
Dixon, zoology graduate from the University of Sheffield , recalls the disastrous first ride from Glasgow to London in 2013 as he dug into his post-performance pasta.
“The trailer bumped into my wheel and broke it. Our director had to carry my bike to the nearest bicycle shop and I had to borrow his. The whole first ride was an absolute catastrophe.
“It was such a crucial moment in our history because we could have very easily said, ‘This isn’t physically possible’,” recalls the 25-year-old actor from Liverpool.
But like a typical Shakespearean comedy of errors, the tragedy did not remain a tragedy.
“In our second venue, there was a group of bicycle mechanics and they came to watch our show. Then, they fixed all of our bicycles for free and suddenly we were like, ‘This is possible. This is exciting. As long as everyone helps us along the way, this can work’,” says Dixon.
Nothing has stopped the HandleBards since then. The young and energetic troupe improved with every gig, infusing every show with theatrical wit and charm.
In fact, the popularity of the HandleBards grew to such heights that the company had to form two groups for its British tours: the HandleBardettes (an all-female group) and the all-male HandleBards troupe.
The HandleBards’ recent Malaysian stop was part of its first ever Asian tour. It performed in India, Singapore and Myanmar. Of course, logistics did not allow them to cycle from Britain to Asia.
Speaking about the tour, Dixon says he remembers “quite naively worrying about people understanding the text.”
What he discovered was something to the contrary.
“Everybody understands it. Sometimes even better than people from back home,” he says.
However, Brodie and Dixon acknowledge the apprehension and fear people have towards Shakespeare. To dispel the misconception, says Brodie, the HandleBards “try to tear down the reverence that people have towards Shakespeare’s plays.”
“As storytellers, we want everybody to relate or respond to the characters. Shakespeare’s works shouldn’t be put on a pedestal. Everyone should be able to enjoy it,” he maintains.
“That’s one of the reasons we do school tours as well because it’s really important. It’s not just reading text from the books … you have to have it come alive and be able to respond to it.”
Thus, the HandleBards’ mission is to make Shakespeare exciting and accessible.
And part of the excitement is in the group’s set-up itself. Can you imagine four guys cycling for miles, with loaded trailers attached to their bicycles, and then erecting the set itself outdoors?
“When we perform back in Britain, it’s an event. It’s outdoors, we are fighting against the elements, people will be bringing their picnics, you always get a local band performing before the show even begins. You get cyclists, you get people who love Shakespeare … all sorts. We get a really dynamic and diverse audience,” says Brodie.
“I think it adds energy to the performance because you have to carry 40kgs to 60kgs (of weight) up some massive hills just to get to your venue. For some reason, all of our venues seem to be on a hill,” he recalls.
Brodie, a 26-year-old from Surrey, studied anthropology and archeaology, but left the campus life to join Circomedia, the centre for contemporary circus and physical theatre. He previously performed and devised work throughout Britain before joining the HandleBards.
Some of his past projects include Carnesky’s Tarot Drome, Princess Taz And The Fearsom Forest and Seeing Double.
What’s even more exciting is to see the performers taking on every character in a production. It’s complete comedy as they slip in and out of costume and assume the many roles on stage, sometimes even dragging audience members to fill in as a minor fairy or a footsoldier.
The HandleBards have thus far performed crowd favourites such as Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, The Comedy Of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet.
But it is the tragedies, says Dixon, that are the most fun to perform.
“When we try and turn them into a comedy, people don’t expect it. They are the ones the audiences enjoy the most,” he points out.
Perhaps, the next time the HandleBards come to our shores, the audience can expect a comical Shakespearean tragedy.
The duo hope to return to Asia – this time on their bicyles.
“To cycle across South-East Asia would be great. I heard it might be a bit dangerous. Maybe we just need to get bigger bikes and more helmets, elbow pads and knee pads,” concludes Dixon with a laugh.