21st February 2015
Thanks to disasters with plumbing, shopping, and flights, I really needed a bit of escapism by the time I went to see the HandleBards*. Thank God they delivered, with a madcap romp through A Comedy of Errors (coming in at a very lean 84 minutes by my watch), in a vault under Waterloo station, and with a cast of only four.
A word of explanation – the HandleBards are a troupe who bike around the country performing Shakespeare in somewhat offbeat locations, ostensibly only using the props they have biked with them (this may even be true, although since two days before I saw the show they lost a bag of props on a train, I’m taking it with a pinch of salt). This is almost certainly only possible in the UK – I don’t think anywhere else in the world has sufficient population density to support itinerant pedalling Shakespearean thespians in quite the same way.
Doubling-up seems de rigeur for the play, since the main characters are two sets of twins, but even so the HandleBards managed it well, portraying the different characters of the Antipholuses (Antipholi? Antipholes?) and Dromios with subtle ticks and something in their bearing, as well as backwards hats. The rest of the characters were signified by the aid of jackets, waistcoats, aprons, and even a pair of badminton shuttlecocks (because, well, how else would you play a courtesan?). Otherwise the costuming was strictly tweed jackets, plus fours, and coloured socks – the better to show off those cyclists’ calves?
Having been to a few plays done with limited casts and less limited characters, I always look forward to that moment where an actor has to do a scene with himself, and this was very well done. There were clever, but also very funny, moments involving hangars, pegs, plates, and even hapless members of the audience standing in. Particular kudos to Paul Moss, who at one point had to play three different characters in the space of three consecutive lines – and totally managed to pull it off.
And on to the play itself. My knowledge of the plot beforehand was basically: There are some twins. Hijinks ensue. And that’s pretty much it actually. There’s some mild peril, and some regular abuse of servants, which leaves a slightly unfortunate taste in the mouth (but would be completely impossible to remove). But mostly it’s an awful lot of mistaken identity – which requires (and received) a deft hand to carry itself so lightly, and yet leave the audience in no doubt as to which twin was which. If we’d ever been as confused as the characters, we wouldn’t have been laughing half as hard as we were.
The Vaults are actually a blooming weird venue – it is both literally and figuratively underground, at the back of a maze of tunnels under Waterloo, accessed through a graffitteed subway. Not for nothing do the tickets say “The venue can be difficult to find. Please allow plenty of time to arrive in advance.” The trains rumble past pretty frequently too. I reckon, if you put on Macbeth here, you could make a sizeable portion of the audience wet themselves.
As it was, and given the HandleBards’ minimalist set dressing (unsurprising if they really do bike it all round the country), I wasn’t quite transported to a sunny Mediterranean town. I did manage to get a very long way from the troubles of London, and I’ll definitely try to catch the cycling players again.
* I keep on accidentally typing HandelBards, which is an entirely different fusion, but one I would also pay good money to see…