SOMETHING wickedly funny this way comes in irreverent Shakespeare troupe The HandleBards’ all-female Macbeth, the first burst of York Theatre Royal’s Spring! Season on January 25 and 26.
Anyone fearing that “The Scottish Play” will be all gloom and doom instead will encounter “The Skittish Play”, with the tragedy-trampling promise of a frantic, delirious, full-of-beans farce delivered by Kathryn Perkins, Natalie Simone and Jenny Smith.
Director Emma Sampson, now returned to Australia, says: “Working with The HandleBards is always the most fun job of my calendar year and the all-female cast has been a delight to direct. They are truly three of the funniest women I have ever met in my life.”
Tom Dixon, co-producer and co-founder of these cycling purveyors of environmentally sustainable Shakespeare, concurs. “Having three women playing all the roles brings real joy to poking fun at all the toxic masculinity in Macbeth. There’s a tradition of finding men dressed as women funny, and this way we can mock men by having women play them.
“Lucy Green’s design has gone for a rocker biker theme, so lots of the costumes have bicycle motifs. Macbeth’s leather jacket has tyres on the shoulder pads, and for the motorbikes we have bicycle handlebars and children’s toy parts too.
“We also have Macbeth and MacDuff squaring off and comparing sizes, shall we say, because they’re such ‘manly men’, with all the humour that goes with that when played by women.”
Revelling in The HandleBards’ “very weird ‘Weird Sisters’” taking on all before them in Macbeth, Tom suggests Shakespeare’s tragedy is a joy because it is “such a giving play”, one that continues to draw myriad reinterpretations, whether on stage or screen, where Joel Coen’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, is the latest addition.
“I’m sure you can think that Shakespeare wrote some scenes with comedy in mind, not just the Porter’s scene but how Macbeth addresses everyone towards the end,” says Tom, The HandleBards’ artistic director. “That’s something we like to have fun with when finding a theme for our productions.
“In 2015, when we first did Macbeth, we went for a camping theme, with half baked beans/half tomato soup for all the blood, but Emma vetoed that for the new production. Back in 2015, it was the original [all-male] company that performed it, and we were very willing to get messy!
“Maybe Emma thought, ‘that was back then, but we don’t want it to be so messy’. Now it’s more about ‘meta-theatre’, with one of the characters always trying to play the clarinet behind every Macbeth soliloquy, much to Macbeth’s annoyance.”
Extracting the toxic masculinity from Macbeth meets a counterpoint in Lady Macbeth’s plea to “unsex me here”. “It’s that whole idea that being a woman and committing these acts [of murder] is something that a woman just wouldn’t do, which makes her such a fascinating character.
“We do explain why she says it but we come to a silly conclusion, where our Lady Macbeth really loves Strictly Come Dancing. What’s fun for us is that we’ll have these serious discussions about what masculinity means but then that breaks out into silly jokes.”
Not everyone finds The HandleBards’ pursuit of humour to be a barrel of laughs. ”To be fair, we do meet some people who don’t like our style, and that’s fair enough,” says Tom. “It’s not for everybody, but I would argue we have a wider reach than most, because a lot of people think Shakespeare is not for them, but, look, he wrote for the masses.
“We get this situation a lot of the time, where someone, usually a man, comes along with a friend who bought a ticket for them, and they come for a nice picnic, but they leave converted. Our shows can be a gateway to Shakespeare for them, thinking they would now be prepared to go to a more serious production.
“But our productions are always grounded in the truth of the text. We still hold the text in the highest esteem, and we keep the dialogue in period. We’re Shakespeare nerds but we like to have fun, and with Macbeth, there are so many iconic images, like the floating dagger and the Witches, it gives us themes to explore humorously.”
As a generalisation, The HandleBards can have more fun with a tragedy than a straight-up Shakespeare comedy. “A lot of what Shakespeare finds funny is now outdated, which sets a challenge, so it’s nice to be able to surprise people with a silly version of Macbeth, where we can take the tragedy and make it funny,” says Tom.
Last May’s Theatre Royal visit with Romeo & Juliet showed The HandleBards could make the most of a tricky mix of Mercutio-led comedy making way for murder and tragic teen suicides. Now prepare for an all-female, bewitching, unhinged, dead funny take on Macbeth.
The HandleBards present Macbeth, York Theatre Royal, January 25, 7.30pm, and January 26, 2pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Copyright of The Press, York