Image Credit: Rah Petherbridge
The idea that one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, Macbeth, could be pitched as a “full-of-beans farce” was a notion that intrigued me. I couldn’t envisage how the dark and wonderful Witches, or the archetypal tragic hero Macbeth could produce laughter during their menacing premonitions or soliloquies. Well, I was very much mistaken. The Handlebards, an all-female cast consisting of Kathryn Perkins, Natalie Simone and Jenny Smith performed a raucous, clever and energetic retelling of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
The multiple-role playing by the three-woman band was certainly impressive. Perkins was predominantly Macbeth whilst Simone played Lady Macbeth and Banquo. Smith took on the roles of MacDuff, Duncan, Lady MacDuff and, of course, first, second and third apparition. The laughter from the latter set the mood for the whole play.
The Handlebards who cycle across the country to deliver their take on Shakespeare’s plays, clearly travelled light. Their set consisted of a clothing rail, two scene backgrounds and four tyres; yet, despite its simplicity, such settings made it very easy to follow the plot. Bikes were also clearly influential: props including the crown were made of bike lights, bike bells became the ringing which haunted Macbeth throughout, and handlebars were used for head injuries as well as transport.
Accents were frequent and clever: from West-Country Witches to Banquo’s Scouse murderers. However, with such a myriad of accents and only three actors, understandably, some were questionable. For example, it was not until Banquo’s ghostly apparition entrance of “why aye man” that Simone’s quasi-northern accent became an interesting attempt at Geordie.
Nonetheless, on the whole, the different accents helped to create a distinction between characters and Smith’s MacDuff produced much laughter with her quintessentially Scottish declarative “Murder!”. Perhaps more Scottish accents would have been a fitting addition as it was easy to forget sometimes that Shakespeare’s play was set in Scotland. Yet, the final musical performance of the cast travelling to ‘Scone’ (Scoon) versus ‘Scone’ was a funny but useful indication of the play’s Scottish roots.
Overall, the play certainly lived up to its expectation of farce as the whole audience were in constant giggles. The play utilised some of Shakespeare’s most potent lines and added humour, marking their importance. For example, in Macbeth’s infamous “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” Kathryn Perkins, who played Macbeth, quite literally got a headpiece with a dagger plonked upon her head and there was much laughter.
Acutely aware of its matriarchal acting presence, the performance also poked much fun at the inherent masculinity of the play. In one scene, on the way to Inverness (Macbeth’s castle), Macbeth and Banquo took a quick pit stop at the service station to relieve themselves. What followed was much crotch-scratching, phallic jokes and gruff noises, all leading to much mirth.
In spite of some crude jokes, others poignantly referenced the pandemic which we continue to endure. The show should have premiered back in April 2020, but with the world shutting down it instead came to York Theatre Royal on 25 January 2021. The use of hand-sanitiser in Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!” speech was particularly effective, and the executioner’s brutal guillotine skills were excused by the fact he had been working from home for a year- both scenes had the audience laughing out loud.
If you are wondering whether the production will upset the Shakespearian sticklers, then you are absolutely right. Yet, I think there is an ingenuity in how The Handlebards can take such an intense tragedy and make it not only accessible, but light-hearted and engaging for all ages.
The Handlebards are due to tour again this year, and so you can catch their latest production of Twelfth Night in Summer 2022.