Fooling around with Riddlestick Theatre

29 June 2021

In the words of melancholy Jaques, “Good morrow, fool!”. We are Riddlestick Theatre, a Bristol-based troupe of actor-musicians dedicated to tickling fancies with weird and wonderful stories and enchanting live music. Most of our shows are musical comedies co-written by co-Artistic Directors Thomas and Katharine (that’s me, hello!) which draw from traditions of folk theatre and Early Modern plays. Our shows are often described as raucous, riotous, rambunctious… all those exciting words starting with the letter R - and that’s exactly what we aim for. Much like Shakespeare’s court jesters, our job is to entertain - and we take that very seriously. So when it came to developing a show for Bristol Shakespeare Festival, it had to be something with plenty of those R words, which is why we decided to shine a light on Shakespeare’s fools, and bring them together in one big celebration.

We first developed the show in 2019, and presented two work-in-progress performances at The Room Above, which, if we do say so ourselves, went rather well! During the development process we whittled down our key fools to Feste (Twelfth Night), Touchstone (As You Like It), Trinculo (The Tempest), and Lear’s Fool (King Lear), and we spent time reading the plays and picking out particular scenes in which our fools really shine. We found it interesting how some of those scenes can sometimes be somewhat overlooked, perhaps because fools often have so much cryptic (and sometimes nonsensical) dialogue, it can be hard to unpick - but if you do some unpicking then there’s so much wonderful material. Whatsmore, we found that fools aren’t just there to be fun - they can be far more complex, and we began to incorporate those more tragic and sombre elements into the show in order to present the full spectrum of fools. We were lucky to be given a few days of rehearsal space at Bristol Old Vic, where we then put the scenes on their feet, re-interpreted and adapted certain sections, and tied it altogether, along with some catch-singing and some serious jigging. When it came to characterising the fools, we found it really useful to compare them to contemporary comedians. For example, we see Touchstone as a bit of a James Acaster, and Feste as a bit of a Russell Brand - if you come to the show, see if you can spot their influence on our fools! 

We’re delighted to be bringing the fully developed show to the wonderful Wardrobe Theatre as part of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival this year. When the time came to re-learn our lines, we found it remarkable how quickly they came back after two years, like they’ve been waiting there in the filing cabinets of our minds and just needed a little dusting off (I sincerely hope I’m not jinxing it and that I do actually manage to remember my lines on the night!). We recently returned to The Wardrobe Theatre to rehearse, and it’s brilliant coming back to the scenes two years older and wiser and using that fresh perspective to make them even better. Likewise, it’s fantastic returning to the music and building on what we’d previously developed. Our main musicians, Thomas (guitar), Sophie (cello), and Alison (accordion), really can do magical things when they come together, and it was marvellous to see them re-unite during rehearsals. One of my personal favourite parts of the show is an original song we wrote as an ode to Yorick, Hamlet’s iconic ‘fellow of infinite jest’ - which I can’t wait to perform in front of a real, live audience very soon! 

Thomas on bringing FOOLS to BSF 2021: “It feels wonderful to be returning to the theatre. And in many ways, Shakespeare’s fools epitomize the timeless alchemy of the theatrical experience - the joy of music, laughter and storytelling, and that elusive tightrope between comedy and tragedy. Fools delight in the grey spaces between fixed ideas and assumptions, indulging in the tricky contradictions and unfathomable mysteries that define the human experience.   

For a while now, theatre has grappled with its place in our fast-moving, technologically-advanced society. But if the last year and a half has reminded us of anything, it is the importance of being in physical spaces with people, in the flesh, eye to eye, sharing our experiences, laughing, crying, listening, and empathizing.”

We’re thrilled to be part of Bristol Shakespeare Festival 2021. Thank you for reading - we hope we’ve whet your whistles for some witty fools and foolish wits, and if so, we hope you enjoy the show!