Interview: HandleBards AD Tom Dixon Talks Shaking Up Shakespeare

February 2022

The playfully irreverent HandleBards travel the land armed with lively, comic takes on Shakespeare’s plays, bringing the funny to plays in which we might least expect to find it. This inventive troupe are currently bringing a comic take on “Macbeth” to audiences, touring it until March 9th, before taking on “Twelfth Night” until September 11th 2022. Here, Artistic Director Tom Dixon chats about the company’s origins, current work (including some impressive outreach) and its ambitious future…

Company names are always worth chatting about, so let’s talk “HandleBards”. Is taking Shakespeare on the road by bicycle a USP by choice or necessity – and by that I mean are we talking resourceful shoestring theatre origins or charming whimsy when we hear the name of this company?

The company was started by 4 friends in 2013 with a sense of adventure, a love of Shakespeare, a green mind set, and not much money in their pockets.. so I guess you could say it was about both resourcefulness and charming whimsy!

Shakespeare can famously dull for some and bliss for others – talk me through your journey from first glimpse of the bard’s work to performing his plays for the masses. Was it love at first meeting or…?

When I first read Shakespeare (Macbeth in year 9) I found it so dull! I remember a theatre company came in to our school to perform the play and I found that boring too.. they just seemed to take themselves so seriously.. As I grew up I started to find it a lot more interesting but it’s only been since being on the road with the HandleBards that I’ve started to realise how bloody awesome his writing is! We try to get our passion, fascination and interest for the text into our performances, we want people to realise that Shakespeare is for everyone and his stories are universal.

You find the funny in Shakespeare plays not typically associated with funny bones – what inspired you to bring such fun and games to the likes of “Romeo and Juliet” and the latest show, “Macbeth”?

Shakespeare’s tragedies are ripe for shaking, it’s a lot of fun to turn them on their heads. Particularly when audiences have come to expect certain things from the play (a floating dagger, star crossed lovers poisoning themselves) I think people find our subverting that expectation quite refreshing.

I’d say that’s pretty spot on – I’ve seen both of those shows and “refreshing” is certainly a take-away! So how did “Macbeth” come to be the latest choice for you?

A male heavy play full of toxic masculinity performed by three incredibly funny women.. what more could you want?

Ha! And if I ask you for a highlight or favourite moment in the current show, what springs to mind?

Our “Riding to Inverness!” song. The director actually plotted the journey time to Macbeth’s castle for that one!

You’re also taking the production into schools which is just fantastic to hear. Tell me a little bit about that side of your work.

We raise money during our summer tours for our Educational Programme to subsidise our visits to schools in the winter. When there we host performances and creative workshops to help students better understand (and enjoy) Shakespeare. So far we’ve visited over 120 schools across the world, performing to 36,000 students and working with 6,000 students in our workshops!

Now that’s impressive work. So what struck me most about your “Romeo and Juliet”, aside from the sense of fun, was the sheer pace – how does a person prepare for the frenzy of a HandleBards performance?

It varies between shows and companies. Some like to write out their characters and ‘pathway through the show’ on a sheet which they keep back stage.. otherwise are a bit more rogue and like to just go with the flow. It’s a lot like a piece of choreography and the more you run it the more it ends up in your bones! Also I think the audience love it when they can see things going a little bit wrong but the company style it out. That’s all part of the fun!

Agreed. This is a cruel question of course, but here it is: do you have a personal favourite when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays and/ or characters?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream! And favourite character has to be Polonius from Hamlet, he’s such a dithery old man but also very funny!

And looking to the future, do you think you’ll ever stray from the bard or are you locked in for this love affair with Will?

We have just set up a new sister company called Slapstick Picnic (www.slapstickpicnic.com) who are touring a two hander version of The Importance of Being Earnest.. You should come see!

If it tours nearby, you can count me in! Finally then, for anyone teetering over that “book now” button – why should people come along to see your take on “Macbeth”?

It’s a fast, funny and fearless 90 minutes that will have you creasing with laughter!

So there you have it! You can catch Macbeth on tour until March 9th and then Twelfth Night thereafter, until September 11th – you can find more information, venues and tickets here.

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