Shakespeare on a bike - at the Petworth Festival

HandleBards - credit Danford Showan
HandleBards - credit Danford Showan

One of the more unusual touring Shakespeare companies will be joining the Petworth Festival this year, bringing their outdoor Much Ado About Nothing to Bignor Park, near Pulborough on Thursday, August 1 at 7pm.

The company is The HandleBards – a company which travels between shows by bike.

Since their first appearances in 2013, the HandleBards have clocked up more than 7,000 miles by cycling around the country to perform Shakespeare.

Described by none other than Sir Ian McKellen as ‘uproariously funny’, the all-male company promise a unique brand of “extremely energetic, charmingly chaotic, environmentally friendly cycle-powered theatre.”

Paul Moss, one of the company founders, one of the original performers and now the company producer, believes the big reason it has all taken off so brilliantly is the sheer bonkers-ness of the idea behind it.

“I was one of the original HandleBards and came up with the whole thing. It’s such a mad story that we are still doing it seven years later. Me and the three other guys left university in 2012. I went to Durham and between us we went to Durham, Sheffield and Bristol. It was just a group of friends doing lots of theatre while doing a variety of different degrees. I did chemistry.

“And we just wanted an adventure, something to do the summer after we left university. We wanted to combine the theatre side with the outdoors, and we thought that driving was too boring and that walking was too slow, and so we thought about cycling even though none of us had done any before. But it was year of the Olympics and the cycling team were doing so well and the next year the Tour de France started off in Yorkshire. Cycling was very fashionable and so we thought we would give it a shot. We cycled from Glasgow to London that year and we did about 25 shows. Now we have two groups of actors out there doing 80 shows.

“They really do cycle the whole thing. There might be a bit of using a van at the beginning and the end of the tour, but during the tour they are on their bikes with two panniers and no support vehicle, just pulling a couple of trailers behind them with everything that they need.”

Paul is drafted back in to act should anyone fall ill: “I always think that I have given up on the cycling and then discover that I haven’t!

“It is all just a bit bonkers really. It is a bit irresistible for people to see this company that really does cycle around the country carrying everything, just to see how they are at the end of it and how it has affected them. I think it just captures people’s imagination.

“It has always been Shakespeare since the beginning. We are currently working on next year’s season and we have got one Shakespeare and one non-Shakespeare, but it has always been Shakespeare until now. When we were at uni, we did a lot of Shakespeare. Myself and Callum had done an outdoor Shakespeare tour as part of our summer, and I think there is just such a good tradition in this country of outdoor Shakespeare and picnics that it is hard not to do Shakespeare. But also we just love Shakespeare, and we have now done 12 of his plays, each with just four people in the show.

“We try not to cut any characters at all, so you have got four people playing 15 to 25 people. And the audiences seem to love it.”

They roar into Bignor Park for their Petworth debut to present Much Ado... A group of soldiers, including Benedick, Claudio, Don Pedro and Don John, return from a war to stay at the house of Leonato, a respected nobleman...

The performance is outside. For Petworth, bring your own rugs or low-backed seating and dress for the weather.

Grounds open from 5.30pm for picnics.

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