Is it just me, or does summer 2021 feel like we’ve reached peak levels of cynicism? Politicians continue to lie and philander, heroes are being cancelled and we all seem to be working harder just to keep afloat. Could a tiny three handed touring production of a four hundred year old play make things feel better, though? Friends, the answer is quite definitely, and rather gloriously, yes.
Even the idea behind The Handlebards as a company is cause to feel hopeful. They are travelling troubadours who have been quietly saving the planet by cycling between gigs on national and international tours since 2013. What’s not to love? In their current guise, performers Kathryn Perkins, Natalie Simone and, in an astonishingly assured professional debut, Jenny Smith give us a pedal-powered Scottish Play that is infectious, heart-warming fun from beginning to end.
Totally accessible and unpretentious, there is a committed sense of ‘jolly hockey sticks’ derring-do to proceedings. Despite limitations of scale, we are promised a rollicking good time by a brief but endearing opening address, before the famous story of power and greed kicks off. The stylistic doors have been blown out in a free-flowing highly physical adaptation, directed by Emma Sampson. There is plenty of the right kind of clowning around. By right, I mean the kind of clowning that remembers to be funny. The fourth wall goes too. Banquo’s ghost chases Macbeth out amongst us, for example.
Contemporary references abound from Strictly Come Dancing, via a Lady Macbeth with more than a hint of Stacey Dooley, to The Proclaimers and Grease (both Macbeth and MacDuff proudly rock leather jackets), to rockers Queen, via Kazoo naturally, and The Wicker Man to probably my favourite gag of the evening, everyone’s second favourite James Bond actor. If you’re worried this sounds chaotic, it all makes beautiful sense on the night. If you think it might upset Shakespearean purists then you would be right, but who cares about their snobbery? Certainly not the children I witnessed in the audience, transfixed by the action.
None of it would work in the hands of less skilled performers. At times, playing multiple roles requires deft, well-drilled handling of hats, wigs and props, reminiscent of silent films stars at their old-school Vaudevillian best. Accents, from scots through scouse to Joey Essex mockney are often broad and silly, but every word is clear as a bell despite the outdoor setting and lack of amplification. There are also countless moments of blissful comic timing from all three cast members that you would wait a long time to see bettered from expensive West End seats.
The Handlebard’s Macbeth is more than just a glorious show in its own right though. The chance to experience it freely amongst friends with a picnic in the open air felt particularly welcome. Come the finale, as the sun began to set over the small wooden stage and the cast took their generous applause, the sense of theatre as a force for good and healing was palpable. Your reviewer left with a genuine sense of optimism and, given the times we are in, I can think of no better reason to implore you not to miss it.
Written by: William Shakespeare (with lots of extra fun bits)
Directed by: Emma Sampson
Musical Direction by: Guy Hughesr
Produced by: Tom Dixon & Paul Ross
The Handlebards Macbeth is on tour throughout June and July. Full tour dates can be found via the below link.