Northern Broadsides' production of Richard III begins with a stirring clog dance, sweaty and powerful. It has a dramatic purpose, as artistic director Barrie Rutter explains: "The play opens in a world of peace and celebration, all war has stopped but Richard would rather be scheming and fighting". The dance symbolises his frustration.
Richard III is a favourite play of Rutter's: he formed Northern Broadsides to put on a production of it in 1993. It is an ideal introduction to Shakespeare because of its straightforward narrative and lack of sub-plot.
Has he cut characters? But of course. "Lovel has gone . . . and I can't do with all those Lords that get named in Act Five - Oxford and Blount and whoever else."
Rutter will play Richard III himself. He will limp and he will have a hump but his evil personality will be hidden.
"Some people said I wasn't evil enough, diabolical enough, the first time I played him. But nobody walks around being evil all the time, nobody. The biggest killers in the world have a smile in public. Once Richard gets the crown he goes public about what he wants and that's when his decline begins. The suspicions are there but nothing can be actually proved until he's got the crown. In the soliloquies you can show some of the true face. Richard performs in two plays, a play with the audience and a play with the other people. "
It is instructive to hear Rutter talk to new Northern Broadsides actors - only three of the current company were in the first production. He emphasises simplicity: Shakespeare has already done the invention; it is their job merely to invest the play with personality and make it fresh-minted.
"Clarity and power! Crisp, short, northern vowels. Nothing sloppy or informal. Things like O. When Shakespeare writes an O then it's O! not Uh! If you dismiss it you'll do a dismissive gesture and it becomes mundane."
On a peg behind the rehearsal room door is a fur coat, a costume inspired by the Coronation Street icon Elsie Tanner. Rutter says: "The Queen Of England, Elizabeth Woodville (wife to Edward IV), was very, very minor aristocracy. She screwed her way through everybody but she wouldn't give in to Edward. For the image of queenship we use that coat. She's Elsie Tanner dressed up to the nines. The fur coat comes back in part two when Richard, now King, says to the deposed Elizabeth, 'Will you tell your daughter she should marry me?' And he tempts her with the fur coat, which was previously hers."
This Richard III begins and ends with music; the clogs of dance become the clogs of war. The battle scene will be a clog and percussive tattoo; the three leaders will be seen in their own camps, which will look just like dressing rooms.
What about the horse in "my kingdom for a horse?" Northern Broadsides actors rehearse in a Pennine mill and their props are always splendid industrial improvisations. The horses will be mill trolleys, the type used to transport sacks from one room to another, and Richmond and Richard III will be pulled around on them. A fence of builder's mesh serves as the Tower, a jail and a wardrobe of death upon which Richard places an item of clothing for each person he kills.
Rutter has been wanting to return to Richard III for some time. He looks eager and hungry and so do his actors.
Tour starts today. Until January 17 at Viaduct Theatre, Halifax. For other dates and venues: tel: 01422 369704, fax: 01422 383175