Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Four actors and an awful lot of costume changes in the enchanting surroundings of the Royal Botanic Gardens. But bring your wellies and the midge repellent.
To the splendour of the Royal Botanic Gardens for an outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by The Handlebards, the wandering troupe that carts everything it needs (and a bit more) on the back of a bike. Well, several bikes actually and rather brand-spanking new ones provided by one of their sponsors, by the looks of things.
Two of said bicycles mark the boundaries of their stage and come in useful as the show progresses as fixed points from which to hang bunting and other bits and pieces. Tents of various sizes act as entrances, exits and, on occasion, actor costumes and hidey-holes. And an ascending curtain, of sorts, provides a colourful backdrop from which actors also come and go.
With the four founding actors now in back stage roles as directors, producers and marketers, the four fronting this year’s duet of plays (they alternate Much Ado with Richard III) are all Bards newbies. It must have been an interesting audition process. Wanted : actors with good musical, dance and physical theatre skills, comfortable with commedia dell’arte as a style of delivering classical texts. Oh, and you need to be fit enough to lug kit and costumes on a 1500 mile bike tour of the UK.
But in Messrs Hilliar, Maltby, Mansfield and Plummer-Cambridge they’ve unearthed a (healthy) quartet. And with these four actors playing over twenty parts, explaining who would be playing what at the start gave a degree of signposting, although with the multitude of rapid-fire costume and character changes (many of which were on set) the audience could be forgiven for being a little confused at various points of the tale.
That this was kept to a minimum is a testament to the skills of this foursome. Sticking strictly (well, almost) to the Bard’s original text, diction was pitch perfect on a difficult night for acoustics (wind stirring the trees, the occasional rain shower, people munching on picnics, you get the idea). And their high energy delivery, rapid scene and costume changes and the clever insertion of musical interludes and some very inventive audience participation kept the story moving along and everyone engaged.
Minor roles in Shakespeare plays often have few words but afford the opportunity for a bit physical comedy. We got that here via Dogberry and his watch and through Ursula and Margaret, waiting gentlewomen to Hero. Nothing beats a good bit of innuendo and a dose of slapstick for lightening the mood or breaking the ice. And amusement came from other sources too; the quick character changes on stage effected by having an actor spinning between two costumes held up by a colleague and the confusion caused by having a single actor playing three roles on stage at once (and working in both sexes) being but two examples.
Playing multi-characters in true commedia dell’arte whilst delivering a classic text is a real challenge for any actor and audience reaction at the end confirmed that these guys pulled it off. Perhaps the piece might have been even better if a few more opportunities had been taken to slip in and out of character, play up an aside with a nod or a wink, or work with the audience to a greater degree. It’s very difficult to strike the right balance, but I had the impression that the audience would have preferred more involvement than they were offered.
But that’s a minor niggle with what was an energetic and engaging performance, one that comes as thoroughly recommended viewing for any Shakespeare fan.