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An interview with cycling Shakespeare troupe The Handlebards

London Calling spoke to Handlebards founding member Tom Dixon about Shakespeare and sustainable touring.

Does the thought of cycling through the chaotic streets of London sound like your ultimate nightmare? How about cycling hundreds of miles with all the props and set for a Shakespeare play in tow; hills, potholes and crazy drivers included? This is exactly how the actors in theatre company The Handlebards move their productions between venues up and down the country, and across the globe. The Handlebards have been bringing light-hearted and accessible outdoor productions of Shakespeare to audiences across the world for over five years, and London Calling managed to catch up with founding member and producer Tom Dixon before he pedalled away on their new tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

London Calling: The Handlebards have just celebrated their 5-year anniversary as a theatre company. Congratulations! How has the company changed and developed over that time?

Tom Dixon: Five years ago we were just four friends with very little cycling experience, but a passion for theatre and adventures. Cycling two Shakespeare plays across the country seemed like a good way to satisfy both of those cravings. Over the years, we took every opportunity and adventure that was presented to us and from each new experience more opportunities arose. We now have two troupes that perform at theatres, schools and outdoor venues across the UK, Asia and Africa and we can’t believe our luck. Some things haven’t changed though: we still approach Shakespeare with a playful irreverence and we still find cycling up hills exhausting!

Image courtesy of The Handlebards
LC: You carry all your set and props with you throughout your cycling tour. Have there been any disasters?
TD: Our first ever cycle from Glasgow was the biggest disaster. It was raining and we were cycling along a canal path when the bicycle trailer – which is full of our set, props and costume – came loose, ripping through the spoke of my back wheel. As we were running late for our next show, the director took my bike back to the nearest repair shop and I continued on with his bike. With a temporary fix he raced to catch up and was nearly hit by a car. This resulted in a nasty fall that, unbeknownst to him initially, broke his coccyx. Not the best way to start the tour! Thankfully, things improved from then on.
LC: You have travelled all over the globe with the company. What has been the most memorable setting?
TD: Performing Macbeth on top of Dunsinane Hill was wonderful. It was such a community event, with each audience member carrying a piece of our set, costumes or a prop up the hill for us. The view was stunning! Performing in front of the Super Trees, at The Gardens By The Bay in Singapore, was also incredible.

Image courtesy of The Handlebards
LC: How do audiences differ across the country? Does performing in London offer something different?
TD: In the first few years we tended to see veteran outdoor Shakespeare fans at countryside venues but through word of mouth we now see a lot of families and Shakespeare first-timers, which is lovely. It is always a joy to come back to London, and the elation of having finished a cycle tour, added to sell-out shows in Chelsea Physic Gardens, makes for a great show. We do also see a huge amount of support in other parts of the country, such as Sheffield. The relationships we have developed with audiences and local organisations there are very special to all the Handlebards; the Heeley Development Trust bicycle yard is one the most raucous and appreciative crowds in the UK.
LC: The Almeida’s production of Hamlet has just transferred to the West End, with Andrew Scott at the helm. What do you think it is about Shakespeare’s work that continuously allows it to be celebrated and performed on such a large scale?
TD: Well, from a producer’s point of view, Shakespeare is a dream because the royalty is free! Artistically, Shakespeare’s plays are not bound to a specific time or place; they tell us stories of universal issues that resonate with people from across the globe. I believe, in that respect, they remind us that we all have more in common than that which divides us. 

Image courtesy of The Handlebards
LC: Which Shakespeare play do you think would be the most challenging for The Handlebards to put on?
TD: Two years ago I would have said Richard III because of the huge battle scene, but we did actually find a way to stage it. We love subverting the tragedies - in Macbeth we used baked beans for blood and in Hamlet Rozencrantz and Guildenstern were a ventriloquist and dummy. It’s easy to make tragedies light-hearted by picking on the villains, such as Macbeth and Richard, but a character like King Lear would be tough. It is such a sad play and he isn’t one you can easily mock.
LC: How do you see The Handlebards progressing over the next few years?

TD: We’ve got a lot of ideas, but personally I’d love for us to find a home for the company to build our own sustainable arts cafe … and then plan a world cycle tour!

The Handlebirds are performing A Midsummer Night's Dream in London on July 28, at The Crystal, September 12-13 at Charterhouse and September 15 at Tara Arts. As You Like It is performed September 5, at the Brunel Museum, September 6, at The Rookery, and September 14-15 at Chelsea Physic Garden.