Four actors, four bicycles, 40 characters and a 926 mile adventure. Theatrical touring troupe 'The Handlebards' (geddit?) are taking Shakespeare across the country using only what they can carry on their bikes (and a trailer called Penthesilea).
Some people cycle for medals, others for fitness, but four young actors have decided that cycling is the new horse and cart and are dedicated to bringing Shakespeare by bike to over 20 venues from Edinburgh to London.
Averaging between 20 and 60 miles a day, the team cycle from venue to venue, performing one of two plays (Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night) as soon as they cycle into view of their audience. We caught up (it wasn't hard, they don't cycle too fast) with Callum Cheatle, the only member of the group who doesn't have to play a girl in any of the plays and asked him the most important question – what was he riding?
“We are all riding Specialized Sirruses, and we have got big pannier racks on the back with double 20 litre panniers. There's a trailer called Penthesileia (after an an Amazonian queen mentioned in Twelfth Night) which carries another 50kg but she's a bit of a nightmare going up and down hills.
“We've ridden over the Pennines from Manchester but coming over the Yorkshire dales towards Bolton castle we found our steepest hill so far. Three of us had to cycle up the hill and then come back down and push the trailer up the hill as it was too steep to manage.
“The wonderful hybrid Specialised Series bikes are light and fast paced but mountain bikes would have been preferable for the Dales journey. The ground underfoot was dusty and covered in rocks and potholes, if you didn’t pedal at quite a fast speed the bike would skid and fall. Even then, if you pedalled too fast and turned sharply, the bike would skid and fall. The scenery however, was stunning.”
Not a tweed run
The presentation of the plays has a 1930s theme, but the actors quickly decided to forget their original idea of cycling in period tweeds as apart from their first day of riding, they have enjoyed the summer heatwave on their travels. The group also decided that all their props would be things that could be found on a bike or on a campsite, so sword fights are held with bike pumps.
“We arrive and immediately set up, and have to warm up vocally then after the show we just crash. The fact that we cycle from place to place is really adding to the charm of it,” said Callum.
“Myself and Paul Moss, another Handlebard, had done a lot of Shakespeare tours before, but we'd always driven them. You tend to go from, say, Bristol to London and it doesn't make any sense sequentially.”
Travelling Shakespeare style
“We thought we'd be a bit more environmentally friendly and try and hark back to what Shakespeare used to do when he toured the country on a horse and cart. We thought that the most modern way to do that would be on a bicycle – little did we know what we'd let ourselves in for.
“None of us were really cyclists before we started the tour. I moved to London last year and became a bit of a London commuter as it was the easiest way to get around, but the other three hadn't really picked up a bike until a week or two before the tour started.
“We just thought, 'we're young, we're exuberant, what can go wrong?'. There are no hills in London though, so that came as a bit of a shock – we've loved every minute of it though.
“We try to stay as true as possible to the original Shakespeare but with just for of us there is inevitably a lot of farce coming through, which the audiences have reacted really well to. We chose two plays we knew very well and which we felt audiences would want to come and see.
The two plays have been very well received by audiences and can be seen during August in Nottingham, Stratford-upon-Avon, Sailsbury, Portmouth and Chelsea amongst other venues.