The actors bringing open-air Shakespeare to Norfolk - on their bikes
- Credit: Tom Dixon
Midsummer open-air performances of Shakespeare are always rather magical. There’s the sun setting behind the stage, birds singing between the actors’ lines, the timeless appeal of much loved stories, picnics on the grass.
And what if the players had arrived in town on their bikes that afternoon, put up their stage, delivered a hilarious and inventive production, took the applause then got back on their bikes and rode into the distance?
These are the Handlebards, the cycling Shakespearean actors who carry all their set, costumes and props on the back of their bikes as they travel some 1,500 miles around the country each summer, performing in theatres, gardens, pubs, bike yards and schools. And they are pedalling to a Norfolk venue near you.
“The shows are all about telling stories, having fun, constant costume changes and fighting with bicycle pumps,” says Paul Moss, one of the founders of the troupe. “It’s fast, manic, irreverent and a really nice night out.”
The company was formed when a group of four friends who had just graduated from university wanted something to look forward to the following summer. Initially planning to cycle from John O’Groats to Land’s End, they decided instead to do the same distance touring Britain, stopping to perform Shakespeare along the way.
“We considered it a one-off adventure, but we got phone calls asking us to go back, and eight years later we’re still doing it.” Now they travel the world and there are anything from 20-40 people involved in productions through the year.
Each summer, though, it is just three or four actors who get on their bikes in London and set off first to East Anglia, then west to Bristol, up through England to Scotland. This year their production is a comedic retelling of ‘Macbeth’ and the tour includes all the notable locations mentioned in the play including Glamis Castle and Cawdor Castle.
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“Each year, we go on this big adventure, this journey,” says Paul. “As an actor it’s a real treat at the end of a day’s cycling to expend all this energy. You’ve had such a good warm up. Cycling really adds something to the show.”
Their Pashley bikes are made in Stratford upon Avon, and they travel around 30 miles from one performance to the next.
“We know at the start of the tour, everyone’s a bit slow but they get fitter as they go along,” says Paul. “We test for fitness at the audition – actors have to run, do a workout and then read Shakespeare – but really we’re looking for teamwork and camaraderie.”
They also plan the route to allow extra time to cover the Pennines, and starting with the relatively easy, flat landscape of East Anglia. “We love it here. We can do a show then wake up the next morning and go to the beach. It’s amazing, and the beaches are so beautiful.”
When Handlebards started, they would camp at the venue. “You’d see our stage, and then if you turned your head slightly, you’d see our tents in the background.” But they soon realized that after cycling 30 miles each day, and then getting covered in baked beans for the show, they really needed a shower. So now the actors stay overnight in hotels.
Each actor has one panier for their belongings, with everything needed for the performance fitting into two trailers, which they tow behind them.
“These boxes are each the size of a coffee table and carry about 40kg,” says Paul. “And that’s no mean feat when you’re dragging it up a hill in the Yorkshire Dales. So we have a weight-to-humour ratio regarding the set design. If something is heavy we will only consider taking it with us if it’s really, really funny. That’s what it comes down to – weight. But that limitation leads to some innovative stuff.”
In ‘Romeo and Juliet’, for example, the balcony was a small pop up tent, the bicycles became horses for ‘Richard III’, a cycle helmet turned into the donkey’s head in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and bike wheels were shields for ‘Hamlet’. For ‘Macbeth’ the challenge will be creating the huge cauldron. “We love it because the play is so well known, with such strong images. We want to make it magical by producing things that look like they could never fit on a bike.”
And with just three actors - this time an all female troupe - there is the added excitement for the audience of seeing the frantic scene and costume changes.
“As you’re watching, you can’t imagine putting your shoes on that quickly, never mind the whole costume. It draws the audience alongside the actors, rather than separates them. It’s opening out an experience so it belongs to everyone.”
They will perform for audiences of 50 people, or 500. “There’s something special about both of those shows, equally,” says Paul, who explains that one will be bold and expressive, while the other will be close and intimate.
“It’s amazing to be there and know that it is special, and will never happen again. The stars won’t align in quite the same way. The peacock that just walked across the stage isn’t going to be there every night. And as an audience, we have all shared in this single experience together.
“There’s something special about being together in a live event. The lights go down, the curtain rises, the actors speak. It’s just everyone in the same place having a nice time and enjoying themselves.”
Where to see the Handlebards in Norfolk
Thursday June 10: Stow Hall Gardens
Friday June 11: Castle Acre Priory
Saturday June 12: Pensthorpe Natural Park
Sunday June 13: North Lodge Park, Cromer
Tuesday June 15: St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth
Saturday June 19: Diss Park