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Pedalling fun: Handlebards bring bike-powered, slapstick Shakespeare to Courier Country

The Handlebards are bringing MacBeth to Scone Palace and Glamis Castle - on wheels! Pictures: Rob Halliburton. Gi

Something wicked this way comes – wickedly talented, that is!

Renowned theatre troupe The Handlebards are bringing their girl-powered, bike-powered, high-octane production of Shakespeare’s MacBeth to Courier Country this month.

The troupe, who travel up and down the UK on pushbikes, are gearing up for their all-female performances at Scone Palace, Glamis Castle and the newly-reopened House of Dun.

And they cannot wait to bring Scottish king MacBeth, the “thane of Glamis”, back to his homeland.

“With MacBeth being thane of Glamis, coming up north feels very poetic,” says artistic director and Handlebards founder Tom Dixon. “I think that’s what we’re most excited about.

“It’s always really fun to bring shows back to their historical homes.”

The Handlebards are bringing MacBeth, ‘thane of Glamis’, to his historic home with their Glamis Castle show.

And this is no stuffy, highbrow production – The Handlebards are as much about slapstick and silliness as they are about skulls and soliloquies.

“There’s no reverence to the text,” laughs Tom. “It’s important obviously, because it’s such interesting poetry.

“But we’re also just storytellers, so we want to make sure you’re on the same page as us.

The drama unfolds in The Handlebards’ MacBeth. Picture: Rob Halliburton.

“And I think part of that as well is the physicality – the clowning and silliness.

“We often say ‘this keeps the kids entertained’, but I think as well, it keeps the adults entertained.

“After you’ve heard a big monologue, it’s nice to see someone slip on a banana peel or something!”

Ladies’ MacBeth

This year, MacBeth is being performed by The Handlebards’ popular all-female troupe – Kathryn Perkins, Natalie Simone and Jenny Smith.

Traditionally, Shakespeare was performed exclusively by men – even the female parts. So for Tom, the girls’ troupe brings something special to the production, allowing them to poke fun at some of the more ridiculous elements of traditional masculine ideals.

“What’s really exciting about the all-female company, I think, is completely flipping the comedy the other way,” he explains.

The all-female troupe perform gut-busting slapstick. Picture: Rob Halliburton.

“When an all-male cast performs female parts, you can laugh at them being sort of panto-dame-esque.

“But with this MacBeth, the girls and Emma Sampson the director, have really dived into mocking toxic masculinity. Which is brilliant because as a play, it’s so male-heavy.”

But it stands to reason that where there’s feminism, there’s misogyny waiting in the wings. And sadly, the world of travelling theatre is not exempt from it.

“This is ridiculous,” sighs Tom, “but there are still people out there who say, ‘Will the girls be as funny as the boys?’ Which for me is just insane… arguably, they’re funnier!”

Break a leg!

As the delightfully punny name suggests, The Handlebards travel up and down the UK on their bicycles – an idea which started with founders Tom and Paul Moss back in 2012, and which has seen the company rack up nearly 11,500 miles cycled in the years since. Talk about breaking a leg!

The Handlebards use bikes to take their show around the UK. Picture: Rob Halliburton.

“My best friend Paul came up to me, I think in about 2012,” explains Tom.

“And he said: ‘I’ve got this idea. We’re going to do Shakespeare, but we’re going to cycle around the UK carrying everything on the back of our bikes.’

“And I said: ‘Yeah, alright. Let’s do it!’

“Nine years later, here we are.”

Pedalling sustainability

Logistically, the whole operation is impressively simple – and environmentally friendly.

In a normal year, the actors travel on bikes, with their personal belongings in panniers (little bike bags, for the uninitiated) strapped to their pack racks.

Each troupe has two 175L trailers, which hold the set, props and costumes.

Rock up at the venue and Bill’s your uncle, you’ve got a play!

The Handlebards use bike-powered sets to wow their audiences. Picture: Rob Halliburton.

This past year, due to Covid restrictions, the company decided to use stages for the first time.

The idea allowed for the audience to get a good view while adhering to social distancing, but threw a spanner in the spokes when it came to moving everything on pushbikes.

But, Tom explains, sustainability was kept the number-one priority as they looked into vehicles.

“We did some research and we found an electric van hire company,” he says.

“We’ve kept the essence of the company in that we cycle everywhere, but we’re managing to do it in a way where we’re on a stage.

“Plus now we’re able to carry things like bicycle-powered mechanical sets and all sorts of big exciting things!”

The Handlebards have certainly leaned into their niche, with fun, biker-themed costumes, bicycle-pump swords and a crown made of inner tubes all featuring in the current MacBeth production.

But for Tom, the gimmick is secondary to the message they are trying to send by setting an example.

Impossible? On yer bike!

“One of the reasons we do this is about sustainability. It’s about a way of doing theatre that is planet-positive, and we’re not guzzling gas or diesel as we’re driving all over the country,” he says.

“People often hear about us carrying everything in our trailers, and they think: ‘Well we could never do that because we have this big set’ or what have you.

“But actually, now (that they have a van) what I’m thinking is: ‘Well, you could do this.’”

And it’s not just about companies – Tom hopes the ‘bards can inspire audiences as well.

“With IPCC’s report coming out, I think it’s pretty clear that we need some big changes quickly,” he says gravely.

Kathryn Perkins, Natalie Simone and Jenny Smith as the three witches from MacBeth. Picture: Rob Halliburton.

“Getting on our bikes could be one of the first of many.

“Although,” he jokes, “it does feel like, up north, no matter where you go, you’re just constantly going uphill. I don’t believe there’s an actual downhill in Scotland!”

The Handlebards will perform MacBeth at Scone Palace on August 31, Glamis Castle on September 1 and the House of Dun on September 2. Performances begin at 7pm

For more information about performance dates, or to buy tickets, visit the Handlebards website. 

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