Corruption, greed and sex in 1920s Skipton

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Blake Morrison has been working with Northern Broadsides for 20 years, but he never expected his new play to be Barrie Rutter’s final farewell. He talks to Yvette Huddleston.

It’s not until you put a play in front of an audience that you find out if it works. With something like this, if they are not laughing, it’s not working.

On the face of it, a social satire based on an 18th century French comedy set amongst the higher echelons of Parisian aristocracy would not seem the obvious choice for a Northern Broadsides production. Even Blake Morrison, who has adapted Alain-René Lesage’s 1709 play Turcaret for the Halifax-based theatre company, was sceptical at first.

The Skipton-born poet, playwright and novelist has enjoyed several successful collaborations with the company headed up by artistic director Barrie Rutter and, when we meet during a break from the first read-through of his script at Broadsides’ HQ in Dean Clough Mills, he explains the background to For Love or Money which opened at the Viaduct Theatre this week.

“Barrie had been thinking about the idea for some time. He has an actor friend who was in a London production of Turcaret back in the 1990s and she suggested he should do it. He got me to look at the text in a translation from the French. I thought it was a bit of a stiff translation and as it is set in Paris in the 18th century amongst the upper classes, I couldn’t quite see how that could become a Broadsides production, but then I re-read it and I could see there was some quick-fire comedy dialogue, lots of twists and turns, intrigue and interesting relationships, so I began to see the point of it.”

Morrison’s version relocates the action to an unnamed small Yorkshire town (“it could be Skipton or Ilkley,” he says) in the 1920s and instead of the focus being on corrupt tax collectors appointed by the French monarchy, as in the original, at the play’s centre is a greedy local bank manager.

The role will be played by Rutter himself in what, as it turns out, will be his final outing for Northern Broadsides as actor and director since his announcement in July that he will be stepping down as artistic director next April.

“I’m very sad about that obviously,” says Morrison. “And it gives the production a kind of elegiac quality.”

For Love or Money features a young widow who is wooed by two suitors – an older man with plenty of disposable income who showers her with expensive gifts which the younger man (handsome, charming, an inveterate gambler) wants to put to better use. Added into the mix are a couple of upwardly mobile servants, a second-hand clothes dealer, a bailiff, a drunk and a femme fatale.

Money, as always, complicates matters – duplicity, ulterior motive and other less-than-attractive human characteristics are all to the fore.

“The focus is on corruption in a local branch, but really everyone in the play is out for something – money or sex or both,” says Morrison. “All the characters are a bit tainted and when the play first appeared it upset the French establishment – it was quite a ferocious attack. This is a more gentle kind of comedy but it leaves you in no doubt about the corruption and greed of humankind.”

Given the political climate in which we are currently living, and the obvious resonances with our materialistic age, I wonder whether Morrison had considered setting his play in the modern day.

“I did think about it – the play is about greed and lying so it is very resonant, but I didn’t think it would work. I am very conscious of the terrible ever-widening gap between rich and poor in our society.

“With today’s austerity it is the poor who are suffering and there is a significant section of society which is not experiencing it at all; I hope that audiences will make those associations.”

In the end, Morrison opted for the 1920s – for good reasons.

“It was a time when a lot of money was being moved around in the run-up to the Stock Market Crash in 1929. Also, in the original one of the main characters is a young widow and the 1920s would have been a time when many women had been widowed by the First World War. There is not a lot of period detail but there are references back to the war, so there is this sort of corrupt Jazz Age feel about it.”

Morrison has been collaborating with Northern Broadsides for more than 20 years now and he has a good working relationship with Rutter.

“I do a first draft and send it to Barrie, then there is a lot of to-and-froing between us – what usually happens is that he says, ‘You need more Yorkshire dialect’ in it; that’s a constant,” he says laughing. “I admire him and am fascinated watching him at work – because he is an actor himself, he brings such a lot to directing. He is very high energy and he is the boss alright but he is also respectful of the writer; it’s been good to work with him.”

Morrison’s first production for Broadsides was The Cracked Pot in 1995, a version of Kleist’s Der Zerbrochene Krug, and his most recent, We Are Three Sisters in 2011, was based on the lives of the Brontë sisters using as a template some of the elements of Chekhov’s Three Sisters which is said to have been influenced by Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Other plays in between include Lisa’s Sex Strike in 2007, a very funny and boldly political modern-day take on Aristophanes’ anti-war play Lysistrata and the 2006 production The Man with Two Gaffers based on Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. He excels at finding something new in classic works.

“When I first started I had a tremendous feeling of responsibility to the original,” he says. “Now I feel I can write more freely, but I do find it really helps for me to have something to work with or against, something to bounce off.”

He has been working on For Love or Money, on and off, for most of this year, he says, alongside other projects and commitments. His most recent poetry collection, Shingle Street, came out in 2015, he writes regularly for the Guardian and since 2003 has been Professor of Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s College London, in addition to which he has a new novel coming out next March.

Entitled The Executor it draws partly on his years as literary editor on the Observer and the Independent on Sunday and tells the story of a young man who agrees to be the literary executor of an older writer friend. After the friend’s death the executor is faced with an ethical dilemma when he discovers a controversial manuscript and has to decide whether it should be published. In the meantime, though, there is a play to get on.

“I really like the moment when you come out of sitting on your own at your desk writing,” says Morrison. “That is the moment, hearing the actors delivering the lines, when the process really begins.”

He will be present at a number of the rehearsals – on hand to make any tweaks he feels are necessary – and attending the first preview.

“It’s not until you put a play in front of an audience that you find out if it works. It is very simple with something like this to judge an audience reaction – if they are not laughing, it’s not working. With comedy you want that audible reaction. So I am looking forward to it; it’s exciting but it’s also nerve-wracking, especially as it is Barrie’s last show – I want it to be a good thing for him to go out on.”

For Love or Money runs at The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax until September 23, then tours to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, September 26-30, the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, October 11-14, the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, November 14-18 and York Theatre Royal, November 28 to December 2. For details and to book tickets visit northern-broadsides.co.uk.