The Tempest, presented by the HandleBards, plonks Shakespeare into the pit of popular culture—from whence he came. Cycling between performances, this all-female troupe of pedalling troubadours conjures up, out of virtually nothing, a magical world of Shakespearian invention.
This Tempest offers insights to just how, why, and for who, Shakespeare was writing. Many probably think we need to hold Shakespeare in some sort of elevated thrall. Such reverences only obscures our understandings and reduces our enjoyment.
With imagination and inventiveness, The HandleBards deliver an earthy, essential Shakespearean experience. Quite possibly, it more-closely approximates the experiences of the early 17th century (He first presented his play in 1611).
Living by his wits, his is the material of a strictly commercial play-write. The Globe was no subsidised theatre. With one eye on the gallery, he was busily crafting entertainments pitched directly at the cabbage throwers in the pit. Ever happy to interject, catcall and wander about, the cabbage throwers held no particular reverence for Master Shakespeare.
The distinctiveness of the HandleBard’s production comes from the inventive improvisations that flow from their many self-imposed constrictions. The overarching determinant to what and how they present comes from their desire to cycle, wherever practical, between shows. Consequently, any costumes, props, staging devices, and life’s necessities, are restricted to what they can carry on their bikes.
Their creative re-imaginings of the most mundane of their travelling clobber renders these items magical. A bike pump is a sword; an upside-down colander, a silly helmet; salad servers morph into arm extensions.
Prospero (Ellice Stevens), the lead wizard, pops out proud as punch. She appears as a delighted eight-year-old boy who has just successfully rummaged the attic for paraphernalia to approximate a friendly wizard. Visible under her magical cape are the braces, shorts and long socks that double for cycling to the show. A carbon footprint was never so small.
The combined aesthetic of the troupe suggests an idyllic era of an Enid Blyton England. Before she became quite un-PC, innocent cross-dressing was entirely possible. No wonder Five Went Queer in Dorset!
The channelling of the twelve speaking parts through just four actors gives the HandleBards rampant opportunities for rounds of barely disguised merriment and mayhem. A dusty old don, hunched over a cloudy magnifying glass, could never release the fun encased within the manuscript.
The Tempest is an unlikely tale, driven by wizardry and natural disorders. It’s a face-off between different types of magical powers. Its proposition is that “good sorcery” can triumph over “wicked witchery”.
Tell that to the judge. In 1563, Elizabeth I outlawed all magick in England with an “Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcrafts”. Sorcery, spell and sprites were real. Dancing on a very narrow line, Master Shakespeare was taking full advantage of the licence of the stage.
In presenting The Tempest with a single-sex ensemble, the HandleBards give a contemporary experience of a particularity of Elizabethan theatre. Until decreed otherwise by Charles II, that rake and roué of the Restoration, all women’s parts were ordained by those joint kill-joys—church and state—to be played by men. Meanwhile, on the forever racier continent, women were free to play, well, women. Maybe there was an imperative to Brexit!
In the early 17th century, Master Shakespeare was writing female parts for male actors to perform—dressed and made up as women. His comedies evoked a topsy-turvy world of gender reversal and role confusion. God knows what was going on below the stage.
Theatre as a knowing illusion, granted Shakespeare full license to happily subvert the contemporary notions of sex, sexuality and relationships. The only requirement was that in the end, everything had to go back to how it was before. But along the way, Master Shakespeare could fully indulge in almost any imagined variations to the norm.
Though the word and notion was centuries away, Shakespeare shows just how to "queer" (meaning to subvert) the dominant paradigm. The likes of Devine and John Waters could have taken notes from a master.
And while there is rarely anything new under the sun, the HandleBards are busy doing their bit to scrape back the obscuranting accretions that have occluded Shakespeare over the centuries.
In the early nineteenth century the censorious Dr Bowlder, bequeathing his name to a verb, bowdlerised the bawdy bits out of Shakespeare. He was ensuring that the gentle sensibilities of the emergent middle class would not be scandalised.
With the original scripts largely restored in the 20th century, Shakespeare needs be continuously retrieved from Olympian heights beloved by various cultural worthies. Woe betide he remain within reach of the cabbage throwers.
And while 400-year-old English can sound arcane to our modern ears, the Handlebards joyously convey the flights of fancy and imaginative hilarity inherent to Master Shakespeare. He was only ever one cabbage ahead of the punters. It’s a thrilling place to be.