The Handlebards’ production of Romeo and Juliet was our first experience of live theatre since lockdown – and what a way to restart!
This enterprising theatre company has already proven itself to be creative and proactive – in “normal times” they tour the country on bicycle, pedalling their props and performing Shakespeare in various (usually outdoor) venues, cycling their shows ten thousand miles to date!
This creative energy was not lacking in last night’s performance of Romeo and Juliet at Cogges Manor Farm. If you don’t know the venue, Cogges is a delightful setting complete with C13th manor house as backdrop. My 12-year-old daughter and I were shown to a spot on the croquet lawn where we were able to set up our camp chairs (five feet away from the next household/bubble).
I did wonder whether the cast themselves might be social distancing from each other – but no – the actors (Tom Dixon, Paul Moss and Lucy Green) live in a shared house together, and that’s why they were down to just three players. But they more than made up for the small cast in energy and enthusiasm – and in fact, as if their work wasn’t enough, they even added some extra characters in the form of the sun and moon just for the heck of it.
If there was any anxiety on the part of the audience as to how post-lockdown theatre might work, then this was dispelled within three minutes when we all found ourselves waving our arms to the Titanic theme tune. In fact, they quickly managed to reference Covid with a liberal dose of hand sanitiser before any biting of thumbs. Thus the tone was set for an evening of fun and silliness.
The Handlebards’ take on Shakespeare is certainly irreverent. Although they (sort of) stuck to the lines, I imagine that the Bard himself might have raised an eyebrow or two at their interpretation. For example, during the balcony scene, Juliet breaks out of her sweet verses to yell furiously at her nurse “…BY AND BY, I COME!!!”
The show was most definitely aimed at families, and judging by the squeals of laughter coming from all ages of audience members, they totally hit the spot. There was a lot of farce and facial gesture and comic running about. At times it made it a little harder to follow the Shakespearean language as there was so much comic action going on in the background, but I sort of felt that following the exact meaning wasn’t really the aim. Certainly my 12 year old found it a little hard to follow the language, but it didn’t seem to bother her.
Going along the theme of what-can-be-towed-on-a-bicycle, the props were sparse, but effective. The ingenuity of the props (which were made by Juliet actress Lucy Green) more than made up for the quantity. Juliet “wore” her balcony, and living up to their name the Handlebards made great use of bicycle-related paraphernalia (with pumps as swords etc). They also didn’t hold back on extended mime at times, which added to the fun and chaos.
All in all, I never thought that I’d be laughing out loud at the death scene of Romeo and Juliet, but the trio brought it all together with such silliness and irreverence (“do you have a plaster?”) that the audience was in stitches.
The Handlebards are touring Romeo and Juliet over the next month – and they are a must-see if you are looking to break out of your covid-theatre-fast. What a wonderful way back to live theatre!
P.S If you are visiting Cogges in the evening, then bring a torch and have Google Maps handy as the wooded route back to the car park looks very different in the dark!