IN the exhortative words of the late Freddie Mercury, “Get on your bikes and ride”.
Eco-friendly, perma-cycling Shakespearean travelling theatre company The HandleBards will be heading to York Theatre Royal on May 25 and 26.
Directed by Nel Crouch, company founders Paul Moss and Tom Dixon and partner in chaotic irreverence Lucy Green have created an “unhinged and bonkers” version of Romeo & Juliet, the pulp fiction, early Sixties’ girl-group teenage tragedy of the Shakespeare canon.
“Forget the tears and tragedy, and get ready for some live and wired Shakespeare as you’ve never seen it before,” they advise after fashioning a show replete with music, mayhem and a pile-up of costume changes under the influence of cabin fever when cooped up together in lockdown.
“It was pure fortitude that the three of us were living together,” says Paul. “We ended up living in a three-bedroom house in Crystal Palace for the whole of lockdown, and we just opened a bottle of wine and started rehearsing.”
Crouch had adapted Romeo & Juliet originally as an all-female four-hander in 2016 that then toured internationally to Singapore, Malaysia, India and Myanmar in 2017 and 2018, when Lucy slipped into various roles.
“I’d even played Juliet and the Nurse when needed, and Tom had been an emergency understudy too, so we all knew the show really well, and we decided to adapt it as a three-hander for when we could tour outdoors [in a social bubble] last year,” says Paul.
“We rehearsed it in our living room and a rehearsal room, and then we managed to tour it throughout July, August and September, and we ended up doing about 50 shows, so it was pretty extensive. We then started talking to theatres about doing a tour in March and April, but of course that all got cancelled, though we’ve managed to move a lot of the tour dates to September and October.”
The HandleBards have toured York since four fearless friends, Moss, Dixon, Callum Cheatle and Callum Brodie pedalled Twelfth Night to 20 venues in 2013. “In our first days, I drew up a map of beautiful places we could go to, and of course York was on there,” recalls Paul.
“Someone suggested Merchant Adventurers’ Hall [in Fossgate], and we made contact with Lauren Marshall [hall manager and audience development officer]. We didn’t realise there was an outdoor performance space there, but that’s where we played and then camped by the river that night! The shows became so popular that we had to move them inside the hall.”
York missed out on the Romeo & Juliet tour in 2020, but Paul’s past association with Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird in their days at Shakespeare’s Globe has brought about next week’s stand-alone performances.
“Tom used to be executive producer at the Globe, and I was among the first Candlelighters in the Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre [where plays are lit by candlelight]. Tom and I have kept in touch to help each other out, and when he was interested in putting on shows outdoors at the Theatre Royal, we spoke, but instead we’re now doing the Love Season indoors.”
Usually, The HandleBards travel by cycle on their tours. “But for Romeo & Juliet, we’ve toured by van with a stage for socially distanced performances, and we’ll be taking the train to York,” says Paul.
Looking ahead, he adds: “For our upcoming all-female, comical Macbeth tour, our stage will now fit into an electric van, to go with the cycles, to give us carbon neutrality. If the show doesn’t make it to York this summer, it definitely will next year.
“Lucy, meanwhile, is going into rehearsals for Nel Crouch’s new version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest: not Shakespeare and probably not cycling, for my new company, Slapstick Picnic, where basically the company premises will be wherever I have my laptop! Only two actors will be doing the entire show: Lucy and Bill Ross-Fawcett.”
Should anyone be a newcomer to The HandleBards, what should they expect from Romeo & Juliet? “Unbridled joy!” says Paul. “There are so many parts to our shows, always changing costumes, playing different roles, always having a good time. Romeo & Juliet may be one of the world’s great tragedies, but we’re here to entertain, so if there are tears, they will be tears of joy.
“Shakespeare’s plays are there to entertain and we’re just here to tell good stories. The interesting thing about Shakespeare’s tragedies is that there’s so much humour and comedy in them!
“Until Mercutio bites the dust, there’s very little tragedy in it. It’s a comedy till then, and people forget that, trying to make it so dark. You can play it that way, but it’s a family comedy in the first half. Even if the plays are tragedies, we approach them first with the aim of finding the comedy within the tragedy.
“There’s very little violence in Romeo & Juliet until it’s self-inflicted, so it’s all revolving around a ‘thumb bite’ up to that point!”
Reflecting on the spoke in the wheel of Lockdown x 3, applied to both The HandleBards and theatre, Paul says: “We’ve been some of the luckiest people in our industry, being able to tour last year and getting back up on our feet so quickly this spring.
“The Arts Council has been so supportive to theatres, but when things start opening up again and the furloughs drop out, I think we’ll see holes where people who are freelance haven’t been able to survive . I fear there’ll be a definite impact on theatre over the next two years.”
The Love Season presents The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet, York Theatre Royal, May 25, 8pm; May 26, 3pm and 8pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. YTR is complying with government and industry Covid-19, social-distancing guidelines to ensure safety of staff and audiences.
Copyright Of The Press, York