Action speaks in words

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Samson Agonistes
, Northern Broadsides

Artistic director of Northern Broadsides Barrie Rutter has had the idea of staging Milton's poem on his mind for some years.

"It's a neglected classic," he explains. "Milton is on a bit of an upsurge at the moment, his poetry is being recognised as better than many thought. He's very political, a republican, and republicanism is popular. The time is right."

In the first days of rehearsal, Rutter asks the actors to let the nobility and sweep of the language come through and for less "hitting" of unimportant words - "the text is more noble, less rational, than Shakespeare".

Working with Milton's involved syntax is slow and painstaking until meaning is discovered, say the actors. Stress the wrong word, with the wrong number of syllables in it, and suddenly four lines do not work.

"Samson Agonistes is very difficult to read," agrees Rutter. "But theatrically it is terrific, much more accessible than reading it would suggest. It is heightened and noble storytelling. It observes all the Greek unities - he has a chorus, it takes place on one day, there is continuous time, the shape is very Greek."

Rutter's production is vibrant and alive but that comes from the language. It is not a play with movement; it makes its pictures with stillness and shape. The fixed position of the "bank of sun or shade" where the story takes place is a positive advantage, he insists.

The destruction of the temple happens offstage but its effect will be seen and heard onstage. Every actor will be on, but there will be no sound-effects, no sophisticated technology, just actors with pulleys and chains.

The sculptor Sir Anthony Caro has created the prison set, his first work for the theatre. Samson is chained like a dog, he has to push a huge grinding wheel and Dalila, his wife, and Harapa, the Philistine champion, enter on chariots made by Caro from industrial bits and pieces. The chariots will stay on permanent exhibition at Dean Clough, the Halifax mill where Rutter and his company use the underground Viaduct Theatre.

Sheila Girling, Caro's wife, has made the costumes. the predominant colour is purple: the Philistines had discovered the secret of purple dye but they would not share the secret with other tribes and that is how Philistines came to be despised.

"The sheer stone and iron nature of Sir Anthony's work, the stone and iron nature of the Viaduct Theatre and its barrenness, the barren splendour of Samson's state seemed all to come together," enthuses Rutter. "It seemed an opportunity not to be missed."

Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, until September 19. Tel: 01422 255266

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