Pedalling from venue to venue during the pandemic to perform their unique brand of Shakespeare, the HandleBards learnt that “even in the hardest of times, people will always find ways to come together, to share stories, to laugh and be merry. It’s so important that we do,” says artistic director and co-founder Tom Dixon.
Covid-19 did not put the brakes on the world’s first cycling theatre company, which continued to do shows around the UK in the summer of 2020. Last year, as lockdowns eased, it started visiting other countries across Europe again. “A lot of our work is outdoors and we had huge audiences as many people felt much safer coming to outdoor theatre than watching something indoors. We were very lucky in that respect.”
Pedal power and the call of open roads have led his group to castles, gardens, bicycle shops, pub gardens, halls, theatres and schools. They travel with sets, props and costumes strapped to the back of their bicycles, steered by the dual thrust of being entertaining and environmentally sustainable.
In February, Dixon, together with Paul Moss and Lucy Green, will pull into Penang by rail to perform Romeo and Juliet at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as The Blue Mansion. Guests can expect “an irreverent, charming and laugh-out-loud version of the play, with music, mayhem and more costume changes than you can shake a spear at!”
The HandleBards’ fast, funny and fearless take on Shakespeare has won praise around the world. Young viewers say they enjoy the silly jokes, clowning and audience participation. Even diehard fans who go for the poetry, drama and timeless themes in the Bard’s work — love, death, ambition, power, fate and free will — are wooed over by how the company presents these with physical comedy.
“They enjoy that, through all of the silliness, we remain true to the original text. All the comedy in the show comes from a place of truth in the text,” says Dixon, who founded the company in 2013 with friends Moss, Callum Cheatle and Callum Brodie. That year, they pedalled Twelfth Night to 20 venues in the UK, charming audiences by taking their cue from a remark by Lord Polonius in Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” The Prince of Denmark feigns madness to protect himself.
Actors have come and gone, but the HandleBards has stood by its style. “We always have and always will aspire to make Shakespeare silly, fun and accessible to everyone.”
The trio headed this way have worked together for years and “this means we have a great camaraderie, on stage and off. It is apparent in the performances. We’re there to entertain and have a lot of fun as we do.”
Their upcoming Southeast Asian tour is among several events to mark the group’s 10th anniversary. The team will be cycling A Midsummer Night’s Dream across the UK in the summer and teaming up with a new theatre in northern England, called the Shakespeare North Playhouse, to put on Much Ado About Nothing.
Theatre has changed since the actors first hopped on their pushbikes and they are geared and ready. “I think these days audiences are a lot more discerning and careful about what they spend their money on. As a company, we have always relied on word of mouth, with friends and family telling each other that they must see our shows. We’re lucky to have such loyal and generous followers in that respect.”
Hitting the road and making audiences laugh has been an enriching personal experience for the actors themselves. “Touring to so many beautiful countries and meeting so many lovely people has provided the biggest opportunity for growth.”
Concern for the planet directs the steps of the HandleBards, which won the Edinburgh Fringe Sustainable Practice Award in 2014 and was nominated again the following year. In 2016, it was a nominee for The Stage’s inaugural Sustainability Award.
Reports on global warming and what would happen if people did not act now “make us want to pedal harder, faster and further”, Dixon shares. “Over the last 10 years, we have cycled more than 13,500 miles. When in Singapore, Malaysia and Bangkok, we will be travelling by train rather than flying to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible.”
Wherever it tours, the company performs at schools or hosts workshops to introduce children and the community to the Bard. A video on its website shows participants in a project playing with, smelling and feeling different flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. They then create their own work using the blooms.
Do the HandleBards imagine what Shakespeare himself would say about the way they are bringing his plays to modern audiences?
“I think he would think we are barking mad, but that we’re also bringing his work to audiences in a similar fashion as him, but on bicycles rather than horseback,” Dixon replies.
A heritage venue for the arts
Romeo and Juliet is not the first theatre performance The Blue Mansion is hosting, but it has been years since the last one, says director Loh-Lim Shen Yi. He recalls that when Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua performed the monologue #7 there in 2011, she led the audience on a light-hearted “ghostly” journey to explore the mystery behind Tan Tay Po, the little-known favourite and seventh wife of tycoon Cheong Fatt Tze, who had the mansion built between 1897 and 1904.
Loh-Lim’s parents, architects and conservationists Laurence Loh and Loh-Lim Lin Lee, bought the property in 1990 and spent years restoring it. In 2000, The Blue Mansion won the title of Unesco’s Most Excellent Project at the Asia Pacific Heritage Awards. It was the Luxury Heritage Hotel (Global) winner at the 2021 World Luxury Hotels Awards.
“It has always been one of our goals to host more performing arts and support the local scene a little more. Over the past 25 years or so, there have been many world-class but mostly ad-hoc events hosted by other groups. They have all been quite magical, especially when performed in the courtyard.
“We wanted to curate and host our own events, so we started working with the George Town Festival with A Day Within Indigo Walls in 2019. Last year, we worked with them to bring in the KL City Opera for Mozart in the Mansion. Having heard about the HandleBards coming here through our local partners at Penang Free Sheet (a weekly newsletter listing what’s on in the island state), we jumped at the opportunity,” he says. The performances of Romeo and Juliet will be at 5pm, on Feb 25 and 26.
Music and theatre will be regular attractions and Loh-Lim has a few shows lined up. Surprised by Penangites’ appetite for opera when Mozart sold out within a week, he is bringing back KL City Opera in April for four shows featuring well-known arias by Puccini and Verdi. In March, the venue will host “the best” of the Prince of Wales International School’s performing arts department. He is also working with the GTF team to bring in world-class acts for this year’s event.
Romeo and Juliet will be staged for the most part in the mansion’s courtyard, which can seat about 100. “We hope the actors will also use the balconies on the first floor, as it only seems fitting for this show!”
For details on Romeo and Juliet at The Blue Mansion (Feb 25 and 26), see here.
This article first appeared on Jan 30, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.