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Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Low Down

Shakespeare’s classic Richard III performed by a four-strong troupes of cycling actors who carry with us them of the necessary set, props and costume to perform extremely energetic, charmingly chaotic and environmentally sustainable Shakespeare plays across the globe. Their Fringe run is part of the group’s ‘4 for 400’ season – four Shakespeare plays, each performed by four actors, to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.


Most Fringe venues are 110 degrees, so the Botanic Gardens in a downpour was positively refreshing. And the Handlebards cast of Richard III assure us that it will take more than constant rain to stop the show. And, as there are few things more determined than a British audience going to open air Shakespeare we settle down in our waterproofs, under our brollies and blankets for ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer…’. A few rueful chuckles at that point which rapidly turn to gales of laughter as the four man cast of Handlebards give us a rollicking comedy version of Richard III in 105 minutes.

The Handlebards are a four-strong troupes of cycling actors who carry with them on their bicycles all of the necessary set, props and costume.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is determined to gain the crown of England from his brother, the Yorkist King Edward IV. He will woo, imprison, kill and persuade anyone and everyone (if needs be) to achieve his aim. But great achievement comes with great unrest. It is not one’s first thought for comedy but this group manage to tell a very clear story whilst making us laugh and, in effect, sending up the propaganda at the heart of the original. Shakespeare needed to keep both Queen Elizabeth and his patron Ferdinando Stanley happy. Fernando was the direct descendant of Thomas Stanley whose last minute change of allegiance gave Richmond victory and to whom Shakespeare gives the crowning of Richmond, now Henry VI, after the battle of Bosworth.

The cast of four,  Liam Mansfield, Stanton Plummer-Cambridge, Paul Hilliar And Matt Maltby Are The HandleBards’ All-Male Troupe (there is all-female troupe as well), play 41 parts between them. Or, more accurately Plummer-Cambridge, Hilliar and Maltby play 40 while Mansfield revels in just the one, Richard himself. Only one character is left out, Queen Margaret, whose primary purpose in the play is to prophesy and was probably one of Shakespeare’s devices to help damn the York’s as part of the blacking of Richard’s name.

The play opens with music played on a mop which, it seems, can do very good service as a bass guitar and continues at a rattling pace. Every character is played a little (sometimes a lot) larger than life with the aid of a hat, a scarf or a pair of spectacles often flitting beneath hats dangling from fishing lines, dashing back and forth across the stage to have conversations with themselves. It is rarely difficult to know who is who at any one moment.

They might present it as a comedy but do not be fooled; these actors know their text inside out and deliver it with a fluidity, ease and panache that isn’t always there even on the RSC stage – and they were doing it in the pouring rain in a gale on top of a hill in Edinburgh. Their delivery and mastery of the text is superb.

Mansfield gives us an oddly believable Richard – thankfully there is no  hump, just a suggestion of the scoliosis we now know he had shown through a slightly awkward gait. He draws us into his scheming but also displays a darker side as the play progress and he finally gains the throne spurning the faithful Buckingham’s request for the land he has promised with ‘I am not in the giving vein today’. Thus avoiding the potential for something overly frothy.

They never forget that they are players and the sagging of the simple set of small medieval tents and a screen as they became more sodden was simply incorporated into the story.

By Bosworth It’s getting wetter and windier and raining harder – they have no cover at all. Although it is Bosworth, so perhaps it’s appropriate. They haven’t missed a beat despite being pretty much soaked to the skin.

I felt the scene with the ghosts could have been a bit shorter and brisker – the pace by then is really strong and it lost a little at that point. And the sense of real anger as Buckingham addresses Richard provided a jolt and a reminder that these were blood thirsty times.

This is a version of the play delivered with consummate skill and confidence and is both a perfect introduction to a difficult and complex play and a refreshing alternative look for those who know it inside out.