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Edinburgh Fringe 2018

Twelfth Night

The Handlebards

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Comedy

Venue: Assembly George Square


Low Down

Four overworked chaps and an awful lot of costume changes in the “outdoor / indoor” surroundings of the Assembly George Square Gardens Tree House.  But bring a brolly, as it gets awfully wet if you’re in the front row.


Outdoor Shakespeare in Scotland often means braving the cold and the rain.  And that’s in the height of summer.  At least the Assembly George Square’s Tree House has a canopy to ward off the elements but there’s a real danger of getting damp from the water being hurled about by the quartet of gentlemen actors in this wonderfully silly, anarchic version of Twelfth Night.

Yes, The Handlebards are at it again, the wandering troupe that carts around everything it needs (and a bit more) on the back of their beautifully polished bikes. And their unique brand of Shakespeare was in splendid fettle this Wednesday lunch time, from the usual simple set to the inventive props and a myriad of costumes.  Oh, and don’t forget those magnificent moustaches!

Twelfth Night is a challenging enough play to stage with a full complement of actors.  But with just the staple Handlebards’ foursome, character development took on a whole new meaning.  As I’m sure you remember, Duke Orsino is in love with Lady Olivia but she’s not exactly got the hots for him.  Meantime, Viola suffers a shipwreck and believes her twin brother Sebastian to have sunk with the vessel.  So she pretends to be a boy, Cessario, and becomes Orsino’s servant.  Olivia promptly falls in love with Viola who promptly falls in love with Orsino.  Then Sebastian arrives.  As a side plot Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch, his mate Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Feste (a jester) and a buxom wench called Maria plot to prick the pomposity of Malvolio, Orsino’s head steward.

Got all that?  They don’t write plots like this anymore, do they.  Now, bear in mind we’ve only got blokes on stage here.  This adds that wonderful element of farce to proceedings, creating situations such as that where Lady Olivia, being played by a man, falls in love with Viola, a girl being played by a man who is actually pretending to be a man.  I hope you’re still with me.

Creating complexity like this is right in The Handlebards sweet spot.  Yet they are masters at making sure the knitting doesn’t unravel and that the audience stays with the plot.  This is achieved in part by their pin-sharp characterisations using body, eyes, accents and very skilful signposting of both character and scene change.  This is reinforced to no small degree by the amazing variety of costumes, which this year included brightly coloured long socks, boldly coloured jumpers, very silly hats, a variety of facial attachments and the most amazing yellow stockings (with suspenders!) and cross garters for Malvolio.  Throw in inventive and creative props like balloons, teddy bears, bicycle spare parts and even a whole bike and from what looks like anarchy emerges a clear, concise tale.

Another hallmark of The Handlebards is their ability to lure gullible members of the audience on stage to fill in at crucial points of the play as well as involving them in running, improv style gags throughout what was a frenetic ninety minutes.  Multi-part playing seems effortless, but the rehearsal time must be extensive given the alacrity with which they switch character, costume and accent in a matter of seconds.

It’s top class stuff with Luke Wilson producing the funniest Malvolio I can remember seeing for years, Ross Ford brilliantly handling both Lady Olivia and Sir Toby, William Ross-Fawcett consummate in a bewildering array of characters and Mark Collier convincing as Viola in her (his) various guises and hilarious as the enormously bosomed Maria.

Energy, pace, great characterisations, whirlwind physical theatre, inventive props and costume and some clever improv.  What’s not to like?  Highly recommended, whether you like Shakespeare or not.  Just bring a brolly if you sit near the front.