On Tuesday the 14th of July, William Shakespeare’s most popular play, Hamlet, was performed in the scenic grounds of Nottingham Castle. This show was the first of a season of outdoor theatre organised by TRCH (which runs until August the 26th), and was brought to us by the jolly and humorous HandleBards. This remarkable group of four young men are, somewhat staggeringly, cycling right across the country and delivering Shakespeare-with-a-twist to people everywhere. They perform the entire show themselves (with a little help from the audience), and somehow find time to control the whole production too, including playing a xylophone for the show’s music and rotating the background scenery using their bikes!
Now for those of you who can’t quite remember, Hamlet is the ‘to be or not to be’ one, and the play follows a middle-aged Hamlet on his quest to avenge his murdered father. But as with many Shakespearean stories, mistakes are made and tragedy occurs, and that is exactly what Hamlet is, a tragedy. Nevertheless, the HandleBards didn’t let this definition constrain their antics. The production was, contrary to what you might expect, hugely amusing; and don’t expect to come away feeling overly pensive either, because the audience was in high spirits after this hilarious viewing.
When I first entered the grounds of Nottingham Castle, though, I wasn’t sure quite which way it would go. I was initially struck by the beauty of the grounds, more than anything. Having never been there before, it surprised me how such a charming space was stowed away at the edge of such a lively city. The castle is also remarkably high up, meaning the edge of the grounds provided fantastic views of the whole city (something I particularly enjoyed admiring after the performance, when the sun was setting).
The next thing that hypnotically struck you was the live acoustic guitar and ukulele music from Malc Evans before the show. The castle is surprisingly quiet and peaceful in the evening, given its location, so the accompaniment of this site-specific piece by his gentle acoustic songs certainly seemed to harmoniously and liltingly make sense. As I arrived slightly late, however, I frantically passed into a very organised set up of camping chairs on the left and picnic blankets on the right, and there we finally all sat like entranced hippies on the grass. Barefoot, careless and laughing, we passed away the evening on a picnic blanket while the odd glass of wine, quiche and pork pie snack flowed between us.
When the play began, it struck me how amazing it was that these 4 lads had learned such an intricate script, and still managed to perform it in such a funny way. They definitely deserved the accolades Ian McKellen recently gave them, when he described them as being uproariously funny. But they must have be shattered by the end of the show, what with all the running around, role switching and quick changing. Still, they never showed signs of flagging. And for all those wondering how on earth they managed to fit all of Hamlet’s characters into a four-hander, I suppose the answer is that HandleBards did cheat a little… They picked out a number of audience members to fill in the roles of those with very few lines, but this worked a treat and certainly kept the audience on their toes.
The play’s scenery and props were drolly rustic too, as it was a simple to say the least, but brilliantly effective. The backing scenery was controlled by a manual washing line contraption, where different sheets were attached and rotated (or rather peddled) round to indicate the changing of scenes. And this was also used on occasion when the ghost appeared too, making it look like a revenant arras was suddenly moving across the stage all by itself (much to the amusingly boyish terror of the cast).
The props were all also rather like… well, imagine you’d made all your costumes for a Shakespeare play from stuff you just had lying around the house. It was a bit like that. For example, the ghost of Hamlet’s father was portrayed using the classic white bed-sheet, and a colander for a helmet (no less). Then in the famous monologue scene where Hamlet contemplates the universal nature of mortality, Yorick’s skull was played by a bike helmet (something the actor also wonderfully underlined by squeezing in the extra line, ‘this is a skull’). So thank you very much for that, bravo.
In fact, I find it so exciting that an outdoor production can do away with so many key theatrical features we’re used to in Nottingham. The lighting, sound effects, orchestra, microphones, even simple electricity and a proper stage were all absent and Hamlet didn’t exactly tug at the heart strings like you might expect, but I really thought it was great! It was extremely entertaining, comical and relaxing – and based on this performance I’d definitely recommend the other upcoming outdoor performances in future.
The HandleBards have embarked on a tour of the country this summer, which can be followed on a map on their website (http://www.peculius.com/handlebards.html) or on Facebook. They will be performing Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream in various cities and towns, ending on the 6th of September in Newtyle, and you can find out how to join them on the link above.