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A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Charterhouse

Over the past ten years, a group of actors have cycled the UK taking theatre to audiences up and down the British Isles – they’re called The Handlebards (get it?) and this summer as just one of their productions, they’re taking A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a number of locations. They started out in the historic Charterhouse Square which is the home of The Charterhouse – the perfect location as when Shakespeare wrote the play in around 1595, The Charterhouse which was built as a Carthusian monastery, had just been rebuilt to become one of the City of London’s grandest courtyard houses and it’s quite possible that its owner, Lord North crossed the river to see the plays original production and enjoyed Shakespeare’s most bonkers comedy.

The HandleBards (L-R Jenny Smith, Meredith Lewis, George Attwell Gerhards, Alex Crook © Rah Petherbridge
The HandleBards (L-R Jenny Smith, Meredith Lewis, George Attwell Gerhards, Alex Crook © Rah Petherbridge

As it is now over 400 years since the play was written, I’m presuming that if you’re reading this review, then you know the plot so I won’t patronise you with a synopsis. The thing about the play is you can do what you like with it and the craziness holds up. I’ve seen it set in an Essex trailer park, done in various parks, and in a contemporary, promenade version that took the audience through the streets of Clapham into offices, cafés and other odd spaces. So I was interested to see what The Handlebards were going to do with it, especially outdoors in a square full of history and I wasn’t disappointed.

On a simple stage (that along with all the various props, travels in an electric van – not on their bikes), it was a fairly stripped-down version as there’s a cast of four all dressed in their cycling gear. As Shakespeare wrote the play for 19 characters, there’s a lot of doubling and trebling up although Hippolyta was played silently by a “volunteer” member of the audience, some characters were just costumes held by one of the actors and one character was played by a kitchen spoon – thrown away due to a “wooden performance”! With a running time of less than two hours, there was some judicious cutting of dialogue and characters but it didn’t spoil the enjoyment of a plot that famously includes an incongruous dramatis personae of fairies, star-crossed lovers, “rude mechanicals”, Dukes and Queens but not necessarily in that order.

What pulled everything together was the sheer energy and brio of the cast: George Attwell Gerrards, Alex Crook, Meredith Lewis and Jenny Smith changed characters and costumes in the blink of an eye. There was enough energy coming off the stage to keep the audience warm on a chilly night although as the sun set and the wind got up, layers of clothing were needed to stave off hypothermia – the north wind was chilling but it didn’t spoil the enjoyment. As well as acting and running around the square, the four performers played a portable harmonium, a clarinet, rang bells, banged gongs and sang, keeping the audience amused throughout. They concentrated on the four lovers and the fairies, using a mixture of Shakespeare’s prose along with some contemporary interjections and adlibs but it all worked and never seemed odd or out of place. It was inventive and creative with Bottom’s ass’s head a cycle helmet with ears on top, the love potion was shot at the lovers by water pistols and Titania’s fairy servants were portrayed as camp Frenchmen – there were lots of other gender-bending characters – all great fun.

The Handlebards are touring with various productions including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and playing in some amazing spaces such as Layer Marney Tower in Colchester – do go and see them if they’re near you – you won’t be disappointed.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

Four young lovers find themselves lost in a magical forest, where the Fairy King and Queen are fighting for the possession of a changeling boy. A group of amateur actors head to the same forest to rehearse for a play. Humans and fairies collide and hilarity ensues.

https://www.handlebards.com/

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