It’s unusual to see a production of Romeo and Juliet in which Friar John emerges as the MVP. But for The Handlebards, this failed postman has rich potential. At the cell of Friar Laurence (Tom Dixon), Friar John (initially Lucy Green, later Paul Moss) wandered silently, ethereally, with a spray bottle of holy water, watering both the invisible plants but also hosing down both Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Laurence when they got too overworked, before assuming a pious pose. The drifting figure – who only betrayed an inner life when he gave the audience a sly smile after retrieving his confiscated spray bottle from a frustrated Laurence – created a new focal point for the scenes in the cell, setting up John’s pivotal presence in scuppering the fake death plot later.
This is the creative approach of The Handlebards, a company whose ethos and aesthetic emerges from sustainability and recyclability. Their production of Romeo and Juliet itself is recycled; an all-female version with four cast members toured earlier this year, whereas the version that made it to Derby Theatre for these performances reunited two of the company’s founding members, Tom and Paul (it’s a production that invites first-name terms) along with Lucy from the girls’ troupe. The pull-it-apart, put-it-back-together approach to ensemble building was reflected in the design. The Handlebards cycle between venues as part of their approach to eco-activism, and the set was comprised of bicycle parts and tools: pumps became swords, bells became rings (get it?), and a cycle knapsack became the Nurse’s bosom. The approach celebrated the ingenuity of storytelling over the actual story, as three actors darted between costumes and props to offer their fast, hilarious version of the play.
With each of the three actors taking on half a dozen parts, The Handlebards leant commedia-style into instantly recognisable stock figures, characterised by gestus and accent. In many respects, this felt more sympathetic to the play than attempts to impose a contemporary psychological realism onto the figures, and punctured romanticism in favour of gentle mockery of the characters. Romeo (Paul), for instance, was a moony, lacadaisical youth with Yorkshire drawl, deeply immature, while Juliet (Lucy) was a giggling, brattish, entitled kid with big dreams and a trilling sing song voice that broke into deep throated roars when having a tantrum. Yet while these characterisations might have worked to dismiss the two central lovers as ridiculous, it instead rendered them winsome, as they tentatively worked out how to kiss (tongues or not?) before throwing themselves full-bodiedly into snogging as Juliet swept Romeo off his feet. The two bubbling over with hormones, it was all Friar Laurence could do to keep them apart long enough to marry them.
Around Romeo and Juliet, the rest of the characters struck a single note that they maintained throughout their performance, without sacrificing complexity. Paul’s Lady Capulet was a case in point. Leaning into the increasingly canonical reading of Lady Capulet as (a) a lush and (b) infatuated with Tybalt, Juliet’s mother always had a glass in hand as she calmly and off-handedly set out her expectations for Juliet, breaking out of decorum in order to hold up sexy cat paws towards Tybalt (Lucy). But by conflating the character with Capulet and underplaying the order for Juliet to marry Paris, Paul found a sinister edge to the character, her alcoholism fuelling an unmovable belligerence that made her a formidable obstacle to Juliet’s happiness. The rarely seen Montague (Lucy), meanwhile, was a bluff old lord with enormous moustache and a Fast Show-style drunken incoherence, blustering his way through his few lines to the Prince, but divorced from reality. Their sheltered children had no means of communication with their parents.
Authority was repeatedly undermined, both as part of the production’s own comic deconstruction of Shakespeare, but also as a reading of a play that is itself sceptical of the older generation. Tom’s Prince was defined by a red jacket and the pronunciation of ‘r’s as ‘w’s (leading to the telegraphed final punchline as he looked at the audience to mourn Juliet and her . . . Woe-meo’), gently undermining the severity of his pronouncements of punishment. The farce of Friar Laurence and John acted as a reminder of how perilous the trust placed by Juliet in these incompetents and their master plans was. Even the Sun and the Moon (enormous cardboard cut-outs worn on the backs of Tom and Paul respectively) started showboating, getting aggressive, or simply got in each other’s way as they marked the passage of time. The knuckle-cracking Moon (Tom) who stepped in to back up Juliet when she thought that Romeo was asking for a different kind of ‘satisfaction’ was a high point, and one of the few times that an authority figure seemed to be ready to actually step up to protect one of the kids.
The puncturing of romanticism also made this a very bodily production. The Nurse (Tom), plunged Juliet’s face into her formidable bosom as she reminisced about nursing her, while also getting steamy herself as she enthused about Romeo and Paris’s attractions. A scouse Mercutio (Tom) and arrogant Tybalt (Lucy) died violently, spewing ribbons’ worth of blood and guts, the latter as Romeo plunged a bicycle pump sword down his spine. And both Juliet and Romeo initially enjoyed the taste of their potions before being taken over by violent vomitting and shitting fits. The emphasis on bodily comedy reoriented the play towards physical experiences, which also had a peculiar effect at what is hopefully the tail end of a pandemic. When Juliet passed her ring (a bicycle bell) on to the Nurse, the Nurse popped it in her mouth thinking it was a Haribo, an act replicated shortly after by Romeo; the sight of an object sharing different characters’ mouths felt particularly gruesome in a world so dominated by hygiene statements. Later, Juliet evoked disgust as she made to kiss the mouth of the dead Romeo, who had his tongue lolling out, poking the tongue with her bicycle pump to try and get rid of it so she could kiss his lips instead. The tentativeness played out as an echo of their earlier exploratory attempts at kissing.
For much of the production, Romeo and Juliet simply served as a vehicle to tell great jokes about theatremaking. The stretched resources led to some of the best moments, as (for instance) Paul ran several laps of the stage while waiting for Lucy to get her Friar John costume on (‘she’s still not ready’), or in the virtuoso sequences where a character was required to conduct long dialogues with themselves. A highlight here was Tom twirling between Friar Laurence (whose bald cap was held up in the air by Lucy) and the Nurse, flipping his bosom around as he transitioned between the two characters. Actors embarrassedly took off bits of costume to leave them lying there as corpses, gesturing awkwardly towards the audience to make clear that they were abandoning their dead character. Lucy’s Juliet took several glasses of water to the face as Lady Capulet and Nurse tried to revive her, the two ignoring Lucy’s coughing and spluttering as they continued to react as if she was unresponsive. And the absence of set made for lots of good mime jokes as the cast walked into invisible doors that other actors had earlier set up, or created a ‘lift’ to descend from Juliet’s tower.
The Handlebards usually play to outdoor crowds, and the formality of a half-full Derby Theatre felt a little exposing; however, the cast worked their coloured socks off to keep the audience onside throughout. At the start of the second half, they picked on an audience member in the second row, Stephen, asking him what his favourite parts of the play had been so far; with Juliet having established a bond with him, she then proceeded to direct every moment of soliloquy at him, both pleading with him for support and blaming him when things didn’t go her way. Her obsession with Stephen became psychotic as she whispered his name and tilted her head while preparing to go to her grave. This metatheatrical life for the characters – who occasionally responded negatively to their own jokes, who slipped in and out of their actor persona as they wrangled for stage time, and who enjoyed winding each other up on the stage – added to the sense of self-indulgent theatrical play that ran through the production, but which also kept an emphasis on the fundamental self-absorbedness of so many of the play’s characters.
The final death scene played out as a version of Pyramus and Thisbe, with Juliet in particular taking a long time to die as she counted out her intestines and spleen over Romeo’s body. And like Pyramus and Thisbe, this Romeo and Juliet served to deflate the self-seriousness of tragedy while also finding surprising pathos at moments – for as this cartoonishly immature Romeo and Juliet experienced flashes of sincere emotion and grief, and as they made desperate choices in the absence of the authority figures who had let them down, the production accorded the caricatures humanity. As a night of impeccably performed comedy, and as a fresh take on an over-performed play that got back to its core principles, this worked beautifully – and made a compelling case for the value of live theatre.