Categories - Theatre; Shakespeare ; York Theatre Royal
My first venture back into a real live post-Covid indoor theatre, and what a joyous restart it was. York Theatre Royal had everything organised very slickly – temperature, contact details, handwash, mask reminder; before I knew it, lovely Rita was in position, welcoming me and showing me to my seat and Noel was shimmying up and down the steps wiping the rails and surfaces, as if we’d all just stepped out of the building for a few moments break, not an exceedingly wearing year.
The Handlebards' company were steering the show with a few spokes missing; only Tom Dixon, Paul Moss and Lucy Green were on stage for this performance - this trio share a house together, or in pandemic speak, form a bubble, but it was from this situation that this revised version of Romeo and Juliet emerged, and it was all the more bonkers and wonderfully energetic for it.
There was no green grass, no audience singing, no birds overhead (though an insistent moth was determined to have its moment in the spotlights), no picnics to be rifled through, and participation was a bit hard-going, but all the elements of a Handlebards' extravaganza that we know and love were there. The pipe stage hung with ribbons, the colourful bunting, the crazy costume changes, the ingenious props, the bicycle puns, the sun and moon, and all the irreverence and silliness that could be packed into a saddle bag. All the characters played by three actors - sometimes playing several at a time – meant mayhem and confusion of the very best sort. Juliet wore her own balcony, Romeo ate Haribos and the nurse had bosoms that you could happily eat afternoon tea from without danger of any spillage. It takes serious talent to keep track of so many characters, so many voice and costume challenges and to do it with accurate comic timing.
And that is precisely why The Handlebards way of performing Shakespeare is so effective, and why it does such a great job of introducing the canon to newcomers to Shakespeare, and/or theatre, as well as engaging those who know the plays well. You have to know the work intimately in order to mess with it, and all of the Handlebards have a grounded understanding of Shakespeare – Paul previously worked with Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Lucy trained in classical theatre at RWCMD, and other members of the company have worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. There is a paring down of the text, a great deal of hilarity, but, at the heart, they still get under the skins of the characters and bring out the essence of the story being told.
The show was fast paced and gloriously funny (especially for a tragedy!) – just the antidote needed to counter the Covid-blues. Purists may have winced at one or two of the liberties taken with text, and those who had no knowledge of the story may have found it difficult to follow, but I defy anyone to watch without a smile and, lets not forget, that The Handlebards have engendered a love of Shakespeare, and theatre per se, in hundreds of young people through their workshops, performances and schoolwork.
In 1807, Lamb’s Book of Shakespeare written for Victorian young children, introduced Shakespeare’s plays without compromising the language, but removing the harder concepts within them. The Handlebards are admirably following on in that same tradition , in a modern initiative, giving a powerful rendition of what the plays are about in a way that is accessible and fun for those who see their work, and a way in to further investigation for those who desire that. Their performances are short, but that doesn’t stop them from hitting the mark. The viewer still has to pay attention to the work, there is no mistaking that it has its centre in the roots of Shakespeare and that his characters reside in every note, through actors who are extremely talented and know the calibre of the material they are working with. It’s enthusiasm like that that causes others to want to know more.
Exciting things are happening for The Handlebards. During the pandemic, some of the members have used their bicycles to deliver food and necessities to members of the community. Tom Dixon’s particular passion is environmental concern, and whilst Shakespeare isn’t inherently environmentalist, The Handlebars' tours are put together with as much green criteria as possible, and the company has now established Arts Council funding to support four artists in development to place sustainability at the heart of their work and build platforms for more environmentally aware cultural programming. The crisis has given them new focus, new ways of working and a confidence that their simple pipe stage and colourful banners sit as elegantly on the stage of an ornate theatre as they do on a woodland hillside. In summer 2021, an all-female Macbeth is scheduled. There’s so much to look forward to…
My first venture back into a real live post-Covid indoor theatre, and I couldn’t be more delighted that it involved The Handlebards' Romeo and Juliet. Juliet calling out for a plaster to address the stab from a bicycle pump that caused her intestines to be sprawled along the stage of York Theatre Royal is an image that will live long in my mind.
The Handlebards' production of Romeo and Juliet was shown at York Theatre Royal as part of the York International Shakespeare Festival 2021. The rest of the Festival programme can be seen here.
The Handlebards Romeo and Juliet continues its tour to
Ventnor Park, Isle of Wight
May 29th – 30th, at 7.00p.m
Tickets from Ventnor Exchange.