Preview: HandleBards

Forget stuffy theatres and dusty curtains, the HandleBards are taking Shakespeare outdoors – by bike

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This summer two four-strong troupes of cycling actors, one all-male and one all-female, will pedal the length and breadth of the country from unconventional venue to unconventional venue, carrying all costumes and props on their bicycles. “On this year’s UK tour we will cover 1,500 miles,” says Eleanor Dillon-Reams. The actor, performing for her second year with the HandleBards, will play seven characters in As You Like It.

The quick changes between different roles, including sheep with handlebars as horns, is just one of the many elements that make for an imaginative take on the classic.

Shakespeare connoisseurs, Dillon-Reams says, will enjoy the performances just as much as kids who love a bit of silliness and action. “You don’t have to be of a certain class bracket or of a certain education level to understand and enjoy Shakespeare. It started off as being for the everyman. That’s why we’re performing in parks and gardens and on the street.”

Theatregoers at the relaxed performances are encouraged to bring blankets, camping chairs and boozy picnics, and get involved with the action. With all hands on deck spectators get the feeling they are part of the HandleBards troupe for one evening.

But in this fun and laidback setting, it’s easy to overlook how much work the tour is. The actors will be cycling an average of 30 miles a day before performing the show, packing up, and doing it all again the next day. “You get to the end of a two-hour show and you’re buzzing from the adrenaline – but you’re also really knackered. It’s a new level of exhaustion, mentally, physically and emotionally,” Dillon-Reams says, adding that she loves the lifestyle nonetheless. “You feel like you’re really living. I feel very fortunate to be part of this.”

And she is doing it with conviction. For the award-winning actor it’s about much more than entertainment. “We’re activists at heart. We want to challenge the belief that Shakespeare is for the middle and the upper classes. And we want to challenge gender stereotypes. When young children in the audience, particularly girls, look at us being ugly and physical, playing men, playing women, doing these big beastly roles, and you know you’re inspiring them – that’s a great feeling,” says Dillon-Reams, who was the first woman to perform the 13-part solo show Henry V, Lion of England since its debut in 1992.

The HandleBards will be inspiring audiences across the UK until September and Dillon-Reams is particularly looking forward to cycling and performing in the north. “The further up the country you go, the more beautiful it is. But our ultimate goal is to cycle around the whole world.”

As You Like It cycles into Sheffield on 16 July before visiting Salford, Wigan, Ormskirk, Preston, York, Ripon and Leyburn. The all-male troupe is performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream with stops in Appleby, Sheffield, Salford and Macclesfield. For the full tour schedule visit 

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