The HandleBards’ Twelfth Night
Ordsall Hall, Salford | July 26th

Two words in particular tend to strike fear into the heart of any introverted theatre-goer: audience participation. It was hinted before the commencement of the first act of this rather raucous rendition of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that some of us would be called upon to bulk out the cast of four. But a lot can be forgiven in open-air theatre; scant sets and props are to be expected and actors jollily invade the audience, grabbing unsuspecting spectators mid-sausage roll and pillaging their picnics for drinks and snacks. Acts that would elsewhere be considered a horrific assault on one’s al fresco repast (quaffing another’s Prosecco and taking hostage an unopened bar of Dairy Milk) are here part and parcel of the evening’s entertainment; hilarious knavery and charming tomfoolery rather than grounds for a complaint of anti-social behaviour.

And immensely charming the HandleBards certainly are. This able all-male group (there’s an all-female version also doing the rounds) consists of Luke Wilson, Mark Collier, Ross Ford and Will Fawcett. All are enormously likeable, energetic and undeniably talented. The environmentally-friendly troupe of actors cycle between venues across the country, performing Shakespeare in the open air and then valiantly transporting the set, costumes and props by bicycle. Formed in 2012, they’ve since pedalled two Shakespeare plays a year across the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, reaching as far as India, Singapore and Bali in 2017 (though presumably they didn’t get to Asia by bicycle alone). They’re now regulars and favourites at the Edinburgh Fringe, having won the Fringe Sustainable Practice Award.

References to their preferred mode of conveyance were blithely sprinkled throughout the performance. On taking the stage, actors would often sound a bicycle bell to signal their entry or indicate a change of scene. Bicycle parts are used as the tokens of love passed between the various love interests. Carrying everything by bicycle means that the set is understandably minimalist (just a curtain made up of multi-coloured streamers) and each prop must be duly weighed for both its potential for laughs and its bulkiness.

But this company expertly makes the best of the very few simple props and effects it has at its disposal. The storm which sees twins Viola and Sebastian (both Collier) separated is here simulated by pans of water thrown by audience members. Viola, believing her brother to be dead, disguises herself as a boy with the help of a Captain; calling herself Cesario, she lands a job in the court of Duke Orsino (Wilson). Orsino sends Cesario/Viola to profess his love to Olivia (a hilarious Ford), who is mourning the deaths of her father and brother. A love triangle swiftly develops; Orsino loves Olivia, but Olivia falls for the disguised Viola, who in turn is in love with Orsino. The comic subplot meanwhile sees a mischievous group including Olivia’s drunken and unruly uncle Sir Toby Belch (Ford is again riotous) and his foolish friend Sir Andrew (Wilson) along with her servant Maria (Collier) and her fool, Feste (Fawcett), conspire to convince Olivia’s haughty steward Malvolio that his mistress is in love with him. Their (surprisingly hilarious) prank sees Malvolio, brilliantly played by RADA graduate Wilson, dress in yellow stockings and cross-garters (two of Olivia’s most hated fashions) in a futile effort to seduce her. When Viola’s brother Sebastian appears, matters are complicated even further as Olivia, believing him to be Cesario/Viola in disguise, marries him. But all’s well that ends well, and Twelfth Night ends, as do most Shakespearian comedies, in marriage(s).

Twelfth Night, as its title indicates, was originally intended as a Twelfth Night’s entertainment to be performed on the eve of Epiphany, marking the end of the Christmas season. Befitting such festivities, the play is punctuated with song; the cast here give an especially pleasing rendition of “O Mistress Mine”, complete with ukulele and mandolin as accompaniment. One of Shakespeare’s finest comedies is undoubtedly a good fit for this troupe of merry players, yet one feels that they would be equally well-equipped to deliver a fresh, inventive new take on Shakespearian tragedy (the all-girl HandleBards are currently touring Romeo and Juliet).

There are no weak links in this cast. Ford is excellent as Sir Toby Belch and Olivia, transitioning effortlessly from inebriated uncle to graceful noblewoman. Collier is also compelling as the cross-dressing Viola, Sebastian and servant Maria, for whom he dons an apron stuffed with two (frequently popping) balloons. Wilson shines as pompous Malvolio while a moustache-sporting Fawcett, somewhat resembling another talented Will, is suitably foolish and eminently entertaining as Feste and sea Captain Antonio. Though the transitions between characters and costumes here are (understandably) hardly seamless, the chaotic switching only adds to the humour. In larger group scenes the actors are often playing more than one character at a time; ingenious costume design sees the recognisable jumper or blazer of a character stand in while the other speaks.

The play’s exotic setting of Illyria, an ancient region in the western Balkan peninsula, would have been almost impossible to convey given the sparsity of the set. But the grounds of Ordsall Hall, boasting a history predating Shakespeare, provided a suitably grand and atmospheric backdrop. Indeed, the hall itself merits a visit (entry is free!) Situated within an unassuming housing estate in Salford, it once hosted the Dutch philosopher Erasmus (who by all accounts wasn’t terribly impressed with his accommodation) and local legend has it that the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was planned within its walls.

This pared-back production reminds one that special effects and elaborate sets are not pre-requisites to a fine night’s entertainment. In the company of the HandleBards, the audience is on-side from the off.* Their professional yet low-key, and infinitely accessible performance fosters a sense of old-fashioned communal enjoyment which seems rare and precious today. Even professed bard-loathers, for whom Shakespeare at school was the ultimate chore, are sure to be beguiled.

*Though, had they stolen my bar of Dairy Milk this review might have taken a very different tack.

by Laura Ryan

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