Northern Broadsides is celebrating its 15th year with an epic production of Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses. Elaine Williams talks to actor-director Barrie Rutter about his passion for clarity
After a day of Shakespeare's histories with Northern Broadsides, and sitting through three plays encompassing the Wars of the Roses, one of the bloodiest episodes in England's past, the audience comes away shell-shocked; pounded, not by artillery, but by the percussion of language.
The clarity of the speech - the persistent rhythm of short vowels and strong endings of the northern voice which is the company's hallmark; the classical robustness of the language - delivers the text with an urgency and freshness that makes the meaning as plain as day. It's as if Shakespeare is writing anew his eternal themes on the nature of good and evil for a new audience.
Barrie Rutter, Broadsides' forceful actor-director, started his company 15 years ago with a production of Richard III in which he played the king. He took the production to Middleham Castle, Richard's historic seat, which had never been done before. It makes sense that he marks the anniversary by returning to the play but widening its compass to chart Richard's background and relentless rise through flattery, bribery, manipulation and gore-soaked murder in the Henry VI sequences.
Rutter has pared the four plays into an energetic three, so that the First, Second and Third parts of Henry VI are reduced to two titles - Henry VI and Edward IV - the only non-Shakespearean words in the entire production.
This, combined with the bare force of language through the "embrace of iambics and rhyming couplets", makes the architecture of the tetralogy blazingly apparent - the moral sickness of the body politic only cured by the fall of Richard, its foulest embodiment.
Moreover, Rutter is touring the Roses production in the "Roses belt", mainly northern theatres and venues, again, something he says has never been done before. The Wars of the Roses is in fact a joint venture between Broadsides and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, also celebrating 15 years on its current site. Rutter says: "I wanted to mark the year with something big and Ian Brown (West Yorkshire Playhouse artistic director) was on for it as well, so that's how we started.
It seems a long time ago that Rutter was performing Tony Harrison's adaptation of Greek comedy the Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at Salts Mill, Bradford, amid a chorus of satyrs each wearing a giant rubber penis and clogs. But it was during that week that Broadsides was born. A world tour for the production and a TV contract had both fallen through for Rutter and rather than "kicking the dog and taking to the Scotch", he decided to take matters into his own hands, forming a company that would trade on northern voices delivering classical texts, and yes, the clogs still grace the Broadsides' stage.
"I am a classicist by practice and had always done classical drama in my own voice, but all the time I was with the RSC I had never played a king,"
says Rutter. You couldn't play a king with a northern voice in decades past. Now it is commonplace, but it is Broadsides that is largely responsible for making that happen. "When I set up the company the first thing I did was perform the part of Richard III. That was groundbreaking,"
Northern Broadsides has gathered accolades and awards internationally down the years, but its first-ever set of colours was from Time Out for accessibility. Indeed, generations of teachers and schoolchildren have benefited from the "demonic clarity" and barefaced simplicity of the performances, the plays coming at them like the switching on of lights, with new meaning and renewed poetic strength. However, Rutter has never bastardised or compromised the language to promote accessibility.
Broadsides is not structured as an educational tool. It is there for the plays and the plays alone, allowing them to speak for themselves.
Rutter says that once, during some school workshops, a 15-year-old lad said of Broadsides, "the way they do it is better than all that Shakespeare".
"That's because everything we do is on the text, it is done on the rhythm of the language. We don't go in for psychological longeurs, I have an absolute paranoia about clarity. You cannot do things naturalistically on stage, you have to invite the audience to believe what is happening, but always through the text. We communicate through the percussiveness of the rhythm; that is the motorway which connects actor to audience."
Everything about Broadsides is theatrical, there is never any pretence of realism, down to the fact that the actors often double up as musicians.
Conrad Nelson, who has been with the company almost as long as Rutter, and who delivers an electric performance in the ferocity of his verse-speaking, as the "spider", the "bunch-backed toad" Richard III in the current Roses tour, is also the company's composer and musical director. Rutter says:
"Whoever can play an instrument or sing, plays and sings. That is our point. We like to see Henry VI going off and playing a violin. We are saying 'this is how we do our play' and we do it with aplomb."
One critic said Broadsides has done much to release Shakespeare from the "colonic constrictions of Queenspeak". But the point is not to be "bloody-minded Northern", but to insist on the "plainness of classical English speech" to restore meaning and allow universal truths to shine like beacons.
As for the future, there's a Grimsby Lear on the horizon and a production of The Tempest, but Rutter's life's work is about bringing the text to new audiences, young and old. "Human nature has changed little since the Greeks; greed and grasping viciousness apply to corporate behaviour as much as they did to the world of Richard III. That is our work," he says. "You cannot have too much Shakespeare. There is always a new generation."