Barrie Rutter: Force of nature

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As Northern Broadsides’ touring production of The Merry Wives arrives in Leeds, Sarah Freeman speaks to artistic director Barrie Rutter.

Others, less kind, might describe him as simply bloody-minded. Whatever the adjective, it is down to him that the Halifax-based theatre company has the reputation it does.

“Yes, the audience want to see me, but Broadsides is bigger than me. It is about a company of actors. I am just one of them.” And in their current production, The Merry Wives currently at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, he takes on the plum role of Falstaff.

Born and bred in Hull, there was nothing in his background to suggest a career on stage beckoned. The eldest of four boys, his father worked nights unloading fish and had it not been for his English teacher, the young Rutter may well have followed suit.

Hoping to channel his energies into something useful, the “gobby” Rutter was persuaded to take part in a school play and he never really looked back.

A spell in the National Youth Theatre followed and when he gave up a place at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to go on a European tour with the NYT, Rutter soon found himself being praised by critics as one of the stand-out talents of his generation. By the early 1980s he had joined the National Theatre and the reviews continued to be glowing, but when the company arrived in Yorkshire on tour, Rutter had what he calls his “Road to Damascus” moment.

“We were doing a Tony Harrison production at Salts Mill and right there I thought: ‘I want to set up my own company and I want to do it right here.”

While Salts Mill didn’t have the space for Rutter, he was introduced to Sir Ernest Hall who ran another old textile building just down the road. Dean Clough didn’t (and doesn’t) have the slick facilities of most modern theatres, but then Broadsides has never worried too much about expensive sets and plush seating. “If people see an RSC production there is a tendency to think that’s the only way to do Shakespeare, but it’s not. The Viaduct Theatre is exactly that. We perform under the arches and yes, the audience may have to walk past props on the way to their seats because we have nowhere else to put them, but does it matter? Not at all.”

The Merry Wives – Broadsides has unsurprisingly dropped the usual Windsor setting and the Fat Old Woman of Brentford comes the Fat Old Woman of Ilkley – is one of Shakespeare’s lightest and most accessible plays and gives Rutter the chance to lord it up as the hapless and hedonistic Falstaff.

“We did Lear last year, so we were due a comedy. It’s great fun. Not only that, but there are 16 good parts. That’s pretty rare for any play and as a company it means everyone gets a chance to shine. I am on stage most of the time, but thankfully both body and mind seem to be bearing up. Touch wood, learning lines still comes quite easily and I haven’t yet got tired of touring. I get some actors who tell me how much they want to work with Broadsides, but as soon as I mention the touring commitments they don’t want to know.”

While Shakespeare is what the company is known for, Broadsides has also premiered new work by the likes of Blake Morrison and Deborah McAndrew, and Rutter is already thinking about next year’s anniversary which happily coincides with Hull becoming UK City of Culture.

“Broadsides performed its first ever production of Richard II at one of the city’s yacht yards. It’s still there and wouldn’t it be fitting if we could go back next year? I think City of Culture could be terrific for Hull and right from the start the entire project has had the backing of the people, which is what these things need to succeed.”

The Merry Wives, West Yorkshire Playhouse to April 16. For other Yorkshire dates visit www.northern-broadsides.co.uk

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