Shakespeare is often a favourite among theatre companies putting on outdoor shows in the summer months, but there is one company presenting the work of the Bard in the open air that has an eye-catching USP. The HandleBards, as their name wittily suggests, travel to all their performance venues on bicycles, carrying their props and costumes with them. Since 2013, they have pedalled more than 6,000 miles across the UK to perform ecologically- sound, bicycle-powered Shakespeare. Later this month they will be bringing their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Howsham Mill, an 18th century John Carr-designed watermill on the River Derwent near Malton.
“It started out as a bit of a laugh and it’s become a full-time job,” says producer Paul Moss who set up the company with fellow producer Tom Dixon. “Our first tour was an all-male troupe of friends who all jumped on a bike and cycled from Glasgow to London. It was an adventure more than anything but it was environmentally sustainable, which is important to us, and it was also in the run-up to the Tour de France coming to the UK, so we rode on the wave of that. We weren’t particularly competent cyclists at that time but we have improved.”
Since then the company has gone from strength to strength. They now have two troupes of four actors (one all-male and another all-female), are internationally successful and have performed Shakespeare in 12 countries across three continents. When I catch up with Moss over the phone they have just returned from their second visit to Zimbabwe having spent two weeks at the Harare International Festival of Arts.
“We had a really good response out there,” he says. “We first went in 2015 and we made a bit of a name for ourselves – this time people recognised us around the place. It was an amazing experience.”
Neither Moss nor Dixon have a drama school background – Moss studied chemistry at Durham and Dixon, who studied at Sheffield, has a degree in zoology – but both have a long-standing interest in theatre and did a lot of acting at university.
“We have been friends since sixth form and after we graduated we were both looking for jobs but we knew we also wanted to do something in theatre so we set up the group – just for something to look forward to doing in the summer and to have some fun. And then suddenly people were asking if we were going to come back.”
This year is their fifth season and they have never had any trouble recruiting actors; there is always a great deal of interest in their twice-yearly auditions.
“It’s not your average acting job,” laughs Moss. “It’s one of those once in a lifetime experiences; and we have found some amazing people over the years. It’s always been a very friendly group – it’s a bit of a family unit.”
This summer while the all-male troupe are performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the all-female troupe, set up in 2016, will be touring As You Like It.
“Gender politics in theatre was a huge topic last year but that’s not the reason we started it, we just thought ‘why not?’,” says Moss. “And As You Like It is all about women taking charge which is a really great thing to be doing.”
The practicalities of getting two troupes, plus a company manager for each, out on the road on bikes carrying everything they need with them can be quite a challenge, but the company is fully committed to continuing to do that every summer.
“The logistics do take up a lot of our time,” says Moss. “And it can be a bit of a headache, but it’s worth it.” Once the company complete a summer road tour, each show then goes into schools (in a van, not on bikes) – playing to all ages from primary right through to sixth form –another successful strand which has developed over the years.
“The main point of what we do is to make Shakespeare accessible to everyone – to tell a really good story and make it enjoyable,” says Moss. “We use modern cultural references to inform the characters so it is much more on the pulse of the modern age but the text is completely true to Shakespeare. And we set everything in the 1930s so that it has that feeling of the country gent cycling through Britain.” A nice piece of synchronicity is that the company is now sponsored by Pashley, one of the few British cycle makers left in the UK and based, appropriately enough, in Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon.
This will be the HandleBards’ second visit to Howsham Mill, after a sold-out performance of Much Ado About Nothing there last summer, and the company is building up a core of venues that are keen to welcome them back.
“Every year when we put a tour on the road there are so many people willing to give us a helping hand in all sorts of ways,” says Moss. “If we weren’t on the bikes it wouldn’t have the same magic to it. There is a great sense of community and that’s very special.”
The HandleBards are at Howsham Mill, near Malton, on June 28 at 7pm. Bring a picnic/chair/picnic blanket. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It are playing other dates in Yorkshire in July and August. For details and to book tickets visit handlebards.com