Having already travelled 590 miles on their nationwide tour (and more impressively, on bicycles for every mile of the journey), the HandleBards show no sign of the physical exhaustion you’d expect from carrying props, costume and set cross-country. They’re warm and welcoming, putting the audience in mind of what we’d imagine Shakespeare’s own players to have been like as they joke and chat with the crowd (though admittedly, the crowd’s not so much Edwardian hoi polloi as M&S-goers, and the all-male company is replaced by four incredibly talented female players). Here’s a company that certainly doesn’t feel burdened by its spiritual ancestors, however. If anything they’re invoking the everyman aspect of the Bard that’s been swept aside by years of classical training. The production’s lively, non-stop and irreverent, though that last quality might be to the detriment of the plot.
Stylistically, the show’s a compactly designed marvel. Designer Alberta Jones has created a space which opens and constricts at will whilst maintaining a homely vibe to match the HandleBards’ DIY-approach. Rosalind’s cross-dressing stint is anticipated with cricket-ball codpieces that the performers sport when taking on male roles. There’s a lot of multi-roling to enjoy, and each new character is signified by the ringing of a bicycle bell (worn as rings by each actor). Whether it helps or hinders the chaos of switching characters is up for debate: at times it’s a helpful reminder, but in the throng of figures the constant ringing further complicates the final sequence. The performers respond to the sparsity of roles on stage at this point by inviting audience members up with them.
The audience has a more active role in the show than they’d like sometimes, with actors often taking background characters like sheep into the crowd to “graze” (I pity the fool who left their tub of millionaire shortbread bites in sight. Rookie mistake with an interactive show, sir). The actors aren’t afraid to get up close and personal, and those aforementioned sheep are show stealers in their own right. This does come at the cost of distracting from the scene at hand: for all the fun we have laughing at Jessica Hern and Lucy Green, bedecked in handlebar horns, swigging the front row’s beer, I’ll bet a good portion of the audience didn’t know what the shepherds were talking about. The sequential comedy of the piece is often put before the body of the text and this means the overall show feels somewhat hollow.
It makes you wonder: are we really meant to pay Shakespeare the reverence that we do? We’ve all studied the Bard in class, and it’s the shepherd sequences that keep so many fourteen year-olds from finding As You Like It engaging in the first place. There’s a fine line to be walked with Shakespeare though; whereas it should never feel elitist, if we remove the actual Shakespeare we’re just left with context-less clowning. A couple of jokes feel overdone, forced through the poetry of some really beautiful prose that’s completely ignored here. Lotte Tickner stands out as an example of how to incorporate silliness with sincerity. Her Orlando is a simpering speech-impedimented lamb of a boy who arms himself with a badminton racket and cowers a little under his “bwother”’s embrace, but he’s played completely straight. Likewise, Tickner knows when to afford the audience a fourth-wall break. It feels like she’s performing on another level, and is a true joy to watch.
As You Like It by the HandleBards is touring until 15 September 2017. Click here for more details.