Shakespeare alfresco

The wonderful Handlebards

This summer, we've been visited at Thrumpton Hall (a lovely redbrick Midlands manorhouse dating back to Shakespeare's time), by the wonderful Handlebards.

  The Handlebards are four young men who cycle their way around England and the Continent each year, bringing Shakespeare to the gardens, courtyards and cloisters of castles, abbeys, pubs, village greens and - lucky us - to the Edwardian croquet lawn at Thrumpton Hall. This year, they performed - with a little help from two good-natured recruits from the audience - The Comedy of Errors.  A local band provided the music, John Holmes from Radio Nottingham came along to join the audience, and everybody had a brilliant time.

  Sitting with the actors around our family breakfast table this morning, I thought how wonderfully appropriate this all felt. Writing Noble Endeavours, my 'mission book ' about the long and intriciate history of friendship between England and Germany, I began one story among many with Shakespeare. In 1613, the summer in which England's Elizabeth Stuart married The Elector Palatine, theirwedding was celebrated with performances of Shakespeare at Whitehall. Out at Heidelberg, the adoring young Elector built a little Shakespeare theatre for his play-loving wife.  And it was there, out at Heidelberg, that the actors from the Globe found a welcoming haven when, that very same year, the Globe Theatre burnt down.

  Nearer still to the spirit of the Handebards were the groups of intrepid Shakepeare actors with whose story I chose to end my book: the English POWs who boldly elected to perform Shakespeare (in English) to their German guards during WW2, even going so far as to put on A Merchant of Venice which portrayed a heroic Shylock.  Interestingly, given our habit of stereotyping all wartime Germans as militant Nazis, the guards roundly applauded the actors, extended the performances and gave permission for the prisoners to sing (in private) the National Anthem.

  None of us know exactly how much Shakespeare's plays were performed outside conventional theatres during his own lifetime, but chances are that that they were being put on in just the way that the Handlebards are doing today. Back then, the players probably travelled by foot with a packhorse, carrying the play in their heads and performing wherever they were welcomed and - important to remember this for hungry young actors then and now - given food, drink and somewhere to sleep. Essentially, although the modern performances are doubtless more condensed, the experience is the same. Local musicians would have been recruited to add support (perhaps a music-loving host joined in on his fiddle) and the weather was probably as large a contributor to the event as ever. A rainswept alfresco Macbeth, so the Handlebards say, is a pretty unforgettable experience for all concerned, and not a bad one. 

  This year, the Handlebards are taking their tour across to Holland and Belgium.  Remembering all that I had read and been told, I urged them to extend the tour to Germany, a largely bilingual country where Shakespeare - renewed with every fresh translation - is treated almost as if he had been born there.  Shakespeare was being performed in every tiny town and  - excusing the pun - hamlet,  back in the time that one of Charles Dickens's Household Words' contributors was travelling across the country as a guildworker and sending reports back to his editor in London. When Thackeray stayed at Weimar as a youth, the Schiller Theatre put on performances of Shakespeare every week. And when Charles Sorley visited Germany in 1914, he wrote that a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in a woodland glade, with Mendelssohn's music, was 'the most harmonious thing I ever saw.' Even war couldn't kill off the country's devotion to England's greatest playwright.  Shakespeare's birthday continued to be celebrated throughout WW2, and Shakespeare plays continued to be performed during the years of the Third Reich (albeit with risible revisions of such awkward episodes as the marriage of a Christian and a Jewess in The Merchant of Venice).*

  I hope The Handlebards take up the idea, especially during the period when we need to remember what still binds us to Germany just as much as what divided us - and can never be forgotten or forgiven - for twelve horrific years of Nazi rule. Meanwhile, do check The Handlebards out at  Better still, search out one of their enchantingly funny performances of Shakespeare as it (almost) might have been, when given by just such a group of travelling boy actors, back in his own time.

* Intriguingly, it was at Weimar, in 1914, on the eve of war, that Charles Sorley saw an exceptionally daring performance of The Merchant of Venice, with a vixenish Portia determined to shred a desolate Shylock's pride and ensure his public humiliation. He could never, so young Sorley wrote, imagine such a controversial interpretation being permitted in his own country.

   Added: Thursday 19 June 2014