Kevin Berry on a touring Antony and Cleopatra.
It's a wonderful monster of a play - and monster it is!" Antony and Cleopatra has been on the Northern Broadsides Company's back-burner ever since the first night of the company's first play some three years ago.
Founder and artistic director Barrie Rutter explains: "We were opening Richard III in a boat repair shed in Hull, Ishia Bennison played Elizabeth. The scene between the two of us, where through her I wooed her daughter to be the next queen, became my favourite scene and it's often decimated in the theatre. Someone in the company, an hour before we were due to start, said, 'Why don't you two do Antony and Cleopatra?' Why? 'Because of the evidence of what you do in that scene . . . and Ishia is half Egyptian.'" The idea stuck with him and now he's busy preparing for an autumn tour of Antony and Cleopatra, putting his actors through their paces in a mill theatre in Halifax. He will be staying true to his beliefs of honesty and pugnacity. Rutter's artistic policy is to encourage natural, powerful, northern voices from his actors and go for narrative and visual clarity. Antony and Cleopatra, an often cluttered and confusing play, is a challenge that seems to be stirring him. Watching the finished product will surely be invigorating and unforgettable.
"Whenever I've seen it, and I've seen it about five times, you just don't know what's going on. So I'm going to have a colour scheme which says the blues are fighting the yellows. It's going to be two football teams when we get to those battle sections and when Enobarbus joins Caesar's side you'll see his one yellow shirt among the blues."
Rutter and his actors cannot take a large stock of scenery with them. Their tours have taken them to mill weaving sheds, parks and castles as well as regular theatres, and a ridding stable is on the list for their forthcoming tour.
Classic plays, or plays using classic language, make up the Northern Broadsides canon. Classic language, Rutter often says, can be acted anywhere. Look Back in Anger is a fine enough play, Rutter will admit, but it needs an ironing board and he does not want to be bothered carting an ironing board around.
He respects his material but will adjust and cut where necessary. Not for him an exotic setting or a puzzling interpretation. Clarity is essential because the customers have to know what is going on. In Antony and Cleopatra there are too many named characters in the battle scenes, so names have been dropped and actors given the speeches of four or five characters.
"In Act Three and Act Four there are something like 27 scenes. They're very confusing. So we do dual-staging, with everyone on stage and turning round when they're ready to speak, keeping it simple and clear. We'll have a percussion underlay for the battle scenes, based on the timekeeping in the galley because the first battle scene between the three of them is a galley battle. You won't actually see a man sitting cross-legged, you won't see oars, but that's where the idea came from.
In the play Egypt is so embracing, it's fecund - it's about the female in all of us, it's about warmth and laughter. And Rome is about the pristine, the masculine side, the pragmatic.
So Rutter is seeking to show sharp and effective contrasts between the opposing countries and their armies; the differences between the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra.
"Antony's is botched, ugly and stupid, in that it's not completed, and painful as can be. Whereas hers is serenely beautiful. The only thing that's wrong with Cleopatra's death is that she doesn't die quick enough, according to herself. That's the only blip in that whole section."
Rutter is an enthusiastic, powerhouse director, demanding and inspirational. His rehearsals are a delight to sit it on, his comments are collectable. "Relish the language and there's no danger of sounding like Coronation Street. You have to move your feet. If you're batting for Yorkshire and you don't move your feet you're out."
Rutter sums up Antony and Cleopatra like this: "It ain't Romeo and Juliet. It's about two people in their fifth decade, it's a love affair of maturity. These classic plays all have this wonderful 'I am' quality. You stand up and say 'I am Cleopatra' or 'I am Antony.'"
Tour starts September 29 and includes performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream at certain venues. Details: 01422 369704.