Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Dramaturgy of Handlebards: Paul Moss @ Edfringe 2016


Whilst other theatre companies begin their rehearsals for the rapidly approaching Edinburgh Fringe, The HandleBards, the world’s first cycling theatre company, are already en-route. Their two troupes (one all- male and one all-female) will arrive in Edinburgh in August, having pedalled a cumulative 3500 miles across the UK from London, with all their set, props and costumes in tow.

Their outdoor performances at George Square Theatre and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are a part of the eccentric group’s ‘4 for 400’ season - four Shakespeare plays, each performed by four actors, to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

The HandleBards’ ‘4 for 400’ season, Edinburgh Fringe performances:
Dates: 5th - 28th August
Venues: Assembly @ Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh | Assembly George Square Theatre (Omnitorium). 

All-male MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (directed by Nicola Samer) | All-male RICHARD III (directed by Emma Sampson) | All-female ROMEO AND JULIET (directed by Nel Crouch) | All-female THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (directed by James Farrell).

What was the inspiration for this performance?

Adventure and innovation. The HandleBards shows are dictated by the necessity of having to carry absolutely everything involved in the production on just five bikes. The original idea came from wanting to explore and have an adventure, but marry this with the tradition of outdoor Shakespeare. The shows, therefore, are comedic, fast paced and make clever use of props and costumes.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?

The original team was a group of friends from college and University, and we’re all now involved in the production and creative side of the tours. 

The current team (one all-male cast and one all-female cast) auditioned for us back in December, and that involved a lot of exercise tests whilst reciting Shakespeare! The creative team are a mixture of directors and designers who have been with us for a couple of years (such as James Farrell and Emma Sampson) and people new to the team this year (such as directors Nicola Samer and Nel Crouch). It’s grown from a five-person team to almost twenty people in the past four years!

How did you become interested in making performance?

Strangely, none of the original team trained at drama school. We all went to university and studies sciences - Chemistry, Zoology, Geography and Anthropology between us - but all had a passion for theatre and produced and performed in a number of productions whilst studying. We all figured that we didn’t want to spend our twenties in a lab, so instead we decided to cycle around the country and perform Shakespeare...

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?

Perhaps not - for us, it involves locking ourselves in a room for about five weeks with a whole heap of props and costumes, and hoping that we finish the process with two complete plays! It’s a very collaborative process, but there’s also the constant consideration of whether we can actually carry the things we’d like to put into the show, so we have a fornightly cull of anything that is too heavy (or if anything is particularly bulky or heavy, it has to be reasoned out very carefully!)

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

A renewed or new-found appreciation for theatre and Shakespeare. A big task, I know. We try and create an atmosphere with our shows that embraces the fact that (typically) we’re outdoors in a relaxed setting, without a barrier between the actors and the audience, and the chief consideration is to tell a clear, entertaining story. When it boils down to it, that’s all Shakespeare wanted to do, but the reverence and the expectation of modern performances of his work can sometimes cloud that.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

We invite local musicians to perform before our shows in order to create the atmosphere before the performance even begins, and audiences are allowed to bring picnics to enjoy during the performance. The shows, regardless or whether they’re comedies, tragedies, histories or romances, are all comedies to us, and sometimes involve the audience. It’s a highly choreographed but very bare bones approach - at no point do we expect the audience to forget that the actors are just actors on stage, telling a story. 

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?

It’s basically the traditional outdoor Shakespeare model, mixed with a bit of Brecht and a bit of Bear Grylls, topped off with influences from Kneehigh to Monty Python.

“This is our biggest and most ambitious season yet!” says producer Paul Moss. “Our all-male troupe are returning to the Fringe for the third time, but this will be our all-female troupe’s Edinburgh debut. This is also our first year working with Assembly, which we’re pretty psyched about.”

The HandleBards began their adventure in 2013 when a group of mates from university fancied a challenge before beginning adulthood, and so pedalled 967 miles from Glasgow to London performing Shakespeare en-route. As Paul explains: “Really the pun came first, and it was just too good not to act on.”

Since then, the group have gone from strength-to-strength; they’ve grown from a set of friends with cheap bikes and a rickety old trailer to an internationally successful theatre company, who have performed their brand of fast-paced, bicycle-powered Shakespeare in twelve countries across three continents, winning the support of legions of fans, including British bicycle manufacturer Pashley, whose hand-crafted bikes the HandleBards are riding on their long journey to Edinburgh.

The HandleBards, recent winners of the Edinburgh Fringe Sustainable Practice Award, will perform all- male Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III, and all-female Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew in Edinburgh from the 5th until the 28th of August, before returning to London to complete their national cycling tour. 

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