Barrie Rutter: Why Northern Broadsides will live on long after me

Northern Broadsides' Barrie Rutter as Falstaff in The Merry Wives.
Northern Broadsides' Barrie Rutter as Falstaff in The Merry Wives.
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As Northern Broadsides approaches a landmark anniversary, its founder and artistic director, Barrie Rutter, talks to Sarah Freeman.

Some actors like to spend the hour or so before curtain up quietly going through their lines. Not Barrie Rutter. While the rest of Northern Broadsides are getting ready for an evening performance of The Merry Wives, the man who founded the company is in a backroom of the theatre company’s Halifax home. He’ll slip into the fat suit, specially made for his portrayal of Falstaff shortly, but for the moment he’s happy to hold forth about the problems as he sees it with arts funding, why the RSC doesn’t have the monopoly on good Shakespeare and the gentrification of acting.

“These days arts funding is an exercise in box ticking. It’s worse than it ever has been and I won’t tick boxes just to please the number crunchers. I never have. Never will, but it can be frustrating. Broadsides is classed as a mid-scale touring company and each year we get £255,000 of Arts Council funding. That’s a lot of money, of course it is, but it’s still £100,000 less than our rivals. It’s true we don’t have the overheads which come with running your own building, but what other company puts 16 actors on the stage every performance? I would like a little more, because to be honest it’s a struggle to stay afloat.”

It’s a drum which Rutter has been banging ever since he set up the company. Never afraid of ruffling the feathers of the artistic establishment, some have rightly called Rutter a force of nature. Others, less kind, might describe him as simply bloody-minded. Whatever the adjective, it is down to him that Broadsides has the reputation it does.

“Yes, the audience want to see me, but Broadsides is bigger than me. It is about a company of actors. I am just one of them.”

Born and bred in Hull, there was nothing in his background to suggest a career on stage beckoned. The eldest of four boys, his father worked nights unloading fish and had it not been for his English teacher, the young Rutter may well have followed suit.

Hoping to channel his energies into something useful, the “gobby” Rutter was persuaded to take part in a school play and he never really looked back. A spell in the National Youth Theatre followed and when he gave up a place at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to go on a European tour with the NYT, Rutter soon found himself being praised by critics as one of the stand-out talents of his generation.

“I’m from fish stock, but I was also quite cocky. Maybe I should have felt out of place, but I didn’t, besides there were other kids like me. In fact, there was one lad from Plymouth who was a dustman. You’ve got to remember that the world was very different back then. The country was wealthy because of manufacturing and heavy industry and those that had grown rich on the back of it were keen to invest in arts and culture. Those industries are gone and so has the money. A kid like me today wouldn’t have the same opportunities I did.”

By the early 1980s Rutter had joined the National Theatre. The reviews continued to be glowing, but when the company arrived in Yorkshire on tour, Rutter had what he calls his “Road to Damascus” moment.

“We were doing a Tony Harrison production just down the road at Salts Mill and right there I thought: ‘I want to set up my own company and I want to do it right here.’ Around that same time, two decisions had gone against me. A world theatre tour had gone pear-shaped and so had a TV project, so maybe Broadsides was meant to be.”

While Salts Mill didn’t have the space for Rutter, he was introduced to Sir Ernest Hall who ran another old textile building just down the road. Dean Clough didn’t (and doesn’t) have the slick facilities of most modern theatres, but then Broadsides has never worried too much about expensive sets and plush seating.

“If people see a RSC production there is a tendency to think that’s the only way to do Shakespeare, but it’s not. The Viaduct Theatre is exactly that. We perform under the arches and yes, the audience may have to walk past props on the way to their seats because we have nowhere else to put them, but does it matter? Not at all.”

While the Viaduct has just secured a chunk of Arts Council funding to improve disabled access over the notoriously uneven entrance way cobbles the auditorium’s slightly rough and ready appearance will remain unchanged. It is the way the audience and Broadsides like it.

According to Rutter, the company’s philosophy has always been “Northern voices, doing classical work in non-velvet spaces”. Next up is The Merry Wives (Broadsides has unsurprisingly dropped the usual Windsor setting and of the Fat Old Woman of Brentford comes the Fat Old Woman of Ilkley). It is one of Shakespeare’s lightest and most accessible plays and gives Rutter the chance to lord it up as the hapless and hedonistic Falstaff.

“We did Lear last year, so we were due a comedy. It’s great fun. Not only that, but there are 16 good parts. That’s pretty rare for any play and as a company it means everyone gets a chance to shine. I am on stage most of the time, but thankfully both body and mind seem to be bearing up. Touch wood, learning lines still comes quite easily and I haven’t yet got tired of touring. I get some actors who tell me how much they want to work with Broadsides, but as soon as I mention the touring commitments they don’t want to know.”

When it comes to highlights of the last 25 years, there are numerous. Broadsides performed Richard III at the Tower of London, brought Macbeth to Skipton Auction Mart after it was hit by the foot and mouth epidemic and Rutter turned comedian Lenny Henry into a seriously credible Othello. While Shakespeare is what the company is known for, Broadsides has also premiered new work by the likes of Blake Morrison and Deborah McAndrew, and Rutter is already thinking about next year’s anniversary which happily coincides with Hull becoming UK City of Culture.

“Broadsides performed its first ever production of Richard II at one of the city’s yacht yards. It’s still there and wouldn’t it be fitting if we could go back next year? I think City of Culture could be terrific for Hull and right from the start the entire project has had the backing of the people, which is what these things need to succeed.”

The looming anniversary will inevitably cause the company to look back on its achievements, but not for long. Rutter much prefers to think of the future than to wallow in the past.

“There will come a day when I will step aside. Not now, but some day. When that does happen the company I am sure will continue. There will be a Broadsides after me. Or at least there should be. There is no-one else doing what we do.”

As for Rutter’s own personal ambitions, after playing pretty much every Shakespearean hero and villain there are not many left unfulfilled. In fact, perhaps just one.

“Ah yes, panto dame, I would love to, but no-one has asked me. If they did, I probably would.”

He should probably expect the phone to ring anytime now.

n The Merry Wives, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, April 6 to 16; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, April 26 to 30; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, May 4 to 7; York Theatre Royal, May 17 to 21. northern-broadsides.co.uk