“We called the Arts Council’s bluff - they called it back,” Barrie Rutter on why he’s leaving Northern Broadsides

Barrie Rutter earlier this year at Dean Clough, Halifax, the home of Northern Brodsides. Picture by Simon Hulme.
Barrie Rutter earlier this year at Dean Clough, Halifax, the home of Northern Brodsides. Picture by Simon Hulme.
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Barrie Rutter has resigned as the artistic director of Northern Broadsides. Sometimes you don’t need to dress up the facts.

“I don’t think I have a national profile such that it will create much fuss,” he says.

I say he’s about to find out how wrong he is.

“Are you taking this down properly? I don’t want to get misquoted and end up in trouble. Actually, f*** it. What difference does it make, what are they going to do now?”

Brian Glover in Richard III in 1992, which was Northern Broadsides' first production. Picture by Nobby Clark.

Brian Glover in Richard III in 1992, which was Northern Broadsides' first production. Picture by Nobby Clark.

He’s never been one to mince his words. Interviews between now and April 2018, when he officially leaves the company, are going to be a lot of fun with Rutter.

The party line from him on the official statement announcing his decision reads as follows: “Having failed to lead the team in securing a long overdue increase in Arts Council funding, I have decided that after 25 wonderful years it is the right time for me to stand down.”

On the phone he’s less diplomatic.

How are you Barrie?

Lenny Henry as Othello, which was directed by Barrie Rutter in 2009. Picture by Nobby Clarke.

Lenny Henry as Othello, which was directed by Barrie Rutter in 2009. Picture by Nobby Clarke.

“Erm,” he says, leaving a practiced pause. “I’m fine.”

He isn’t.

So how has this happened?

How has the man who started Northern Broadsides 25 years ago this year reached a point where he’s now going to walk away? He turns 71 in December, but anyone who has seen his performances in this celebratory year will attest he’s reaching the peak of his powers as a stage performer.

Matt Fraser in Richard III in Northern Broadsides production at Hull Truck Theatre. Picture by Nobby Clark.

Matt Fraser in Richard III in Northern Broadsides production at Hull Truck Theatre. Picture by Nobby Clark.

It comes down to funding. Every four years the arts companies of England apply for funding from the Arts Council. This year Northern Broadsides was awarded standstill funding for the next four years, meaning it will receive £255,000 per year over the next four years to carry out its work - the same amount it has received in the past four years.

“We were asking for £100,000 per year extra. We were told that our plans for the next four years were not special enough to deserve an uplift in funding and that the past 25 years were irrelevant,” he says. The righteous anger is evident.

While I disagree with Rutter that his resignation will not be nationally significant - it will - what can’t be denied is that it will have a huge impact in Yorkshire.

“I told the board I’d be leaving after I came out of a meeting with our Arts Council rep who gave us the lowdown on the funding we were going to receive. I was disappointed and incensed at some of the things that were said,” he says. “We’d been told to shout about ourselves, to sing about ourselves as much as possible in case the anonymous, faceless people that judge the funding don’t know who we are - you can put sic at the end of that by the way.

“Then when it came to it, we were told that who we are and what we have done over 25 years is irrelevant and everything will depend on the four year plan that we put forward. Part of that plan was to ask for more funds to increase the wages for our artists and crew as well as what I thought was rather a good programme. They chose not to fund it and there is no appeal, no nothing, that’s it.”

The first time I saw Rutter was at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2002, where Broadsides were staging Macbeth. The stripped back clarity of the production was something of an assault on the senses and my review was less than glowing. I heard on the theatre grapevine that Rutter wasn’t best pleased with my critique.

The second time I saw him was six months later. He grabbed me by the lapels of my jacket and made clear his displeasure at what I’d written half a year previous. It wasn’t the last time Rutter had me by the scruff over a review. I’ve always admired the man’s passion.

This year I’ve seen more of Rutter than usual as I’ve been making a radio documentary for BBC Radio Leeds about Northern Broadsides and the company’s 25th anniversary year. Rutter, a character who it’s always fun to spend time with, has been on occasion quiet and almost introspective. Not words usually associated with the artistic director, but he could sense an ill wind coming. A lot rode on the Arts Council funding announcements. Even so, I didn’t expect this turn of events.

Nor, it transpires, did he.

It turns out that Rutter had been warned by the Arts Council to prepare a plan for what might happen if Broadsides didn’t receive the increase in funding for which they had applied.

He didn’t.

“We called the Arts Council’s bluff - and they called it back,” he says. “They wanted us to do one tour a year.”

Did you consider staying and doing that?

“Did I f***.”

Rutter has always prided himself on bringing big casts to the stage. Broadsides productions often forgo expensive sets in favour of bigger casts.

“One of the first things I said when I started was that I wanted to put as many actors on stage as possible. The Arts Council would come and see us in proscenium arch theatres, because they were the ones close to London, and say, ‘It doesn’t look very good’. That’s because we were paying to put 16 actors on the stage. We didn’t actually get any funding until 2000 and I was told that it was only the award I won that shamed, that was the word someone used to me, shamed the Arts Council into the funding us.”

The award Rutter refers to was the Creative Briton Award, an accolade that came in 2000 along with a £100,000 cheque. It’s just one of a number of plaudits he has received during his career.

It’s tempting to call the ending to his reign at the top of Broadsides bittersweet. He began the company when he was 45; the son of a Hull fish dock worker was sick of never getting to play the kings in Shakespeare plays and so set up a company to present the work of the Bard in Northern Voices. The first Broadsides production was Richard III, staged in a boatshed in Hull Marina and featured the likes of Rutter, Brian Glover and Mark Addy. That the company still stands is a testament to Rutter’s sheer bloody-mindedness as well as his ingenuity in stretching every penny the company was given. It has been a team effort: Sue Andrews has been the company executive director since the start and Conrad Nelson has helped to shape and lead the company alongside Rutter.

While the testimonies that are sure to be paid over the coming months will be sweet, at the moment there’s really only bitterness.

“Things were said that were scathing and scabrous about our creative case for diversity. This in a year of Conrad (Nelson’s) Cyrano (which featured a cast of actors of different races), me directing an all Asian cast at the Globe - which we were told was irrelevant and my Richard III in Hull (which featured Mat Fraser, an actor born with deformed limbs as the result of thalidomide in the title role).

“Because I couldn’t guarantee a one-legged yak to play Charles the wrestler in As You Like It we failed the creative case for diversity.”

I would suggest, with all due respect, that a career in diplomacy is not in Rutter’s future.

What does happen next to the company and its founder and current leader is up in the air.

What’s clear is that Rutter is going to sever ties come next spring.

“I’ve told my agent that I’ll be back on the market as of next April. Legally I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that I have to finish at the end of the financial year. I’ll be directing Blake Morrison’s new play for us in the autumn and then I’ve got this thing at the Globe so I won’t actually have time to clear my desk in the three months notice period I’ll be working which begins on January 1 next year. It means the process of clearing my desk starts now.

“Once I leave the last thing that whoever leads the new team will need is me hanging around. That would be silly. A new team needs to be their own boss so I will step away. There might be change of direction, a rebranding, that will be up to the new team that comes in.”

Yesterday I tweeted about Rutter’s news.

Unprompted I had two replies. One from director Alan Lane who wrote: “Clap him out Nick. An amazing trailblazer.”

Actor Kat Rose-Martin wrote: “An incredible man. With a heart of gold.”

Whatever happens next in this story, the rest will not be silence.