The Big Interview: Barrie Rutter

Polonius, the sneaky court adviser who meets his end at Hamlet’s blade, is a man full of advice.

Before his son Laertes heads on a seabound adventure, Polonius makes one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, giving his son a personalised list of “dos” and “don’ts”.

Give thy thoughts no tongue, says Polonius. Beware of entrance to a quarrel, he warns. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice, is his advice.

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Given that Barrie Rutter is famous for playing Shakespearean roles, you’d think he would have this speech at his fingertips.

Judging by those three titbits of Polonius’ speech, it would appear not.

Give thy thoughts no tongue? Rutter calls me a few days after we meet down in Staffordshire to ask that several of the things we talked about I leave out of this article: he gives his thoughts a little too much tongue.

Beware of entrance to quarrel? The things he asks to leave out were a glove across the face to some that, he thought better of saying in the press.

If he does know Polonius’s speech, he ignores the advice contained within.

But this is what makes Rutter, Rutter.

The sort of actor-manager that is all but extinct, Rutter has a curious sort of fame. Like Berwick Kaler, who is a virtual god in York where his annual panto packs them in, yet could walk the streets of most other cities in anonymity, Rutter is very famous in the places where he’s famous.

He is best known, of course, for being the belligerent force behind that most Yorkshire of companies, Northern Broadsides.

This marks the 20th year since Rutter had a spark of an idea that could only have come from the mind of the contrarian Northerner who appears to stomp through life, when he’s not shouting, muttering under his breath: “Ah’ll bluddy show ’em”.

It all began when he’d been building a solid career in theatre, and... Rutter picks up the story.

“A TV show I was going to do called Coasting was pulled at the very last minute. It would have been a big earner and what do you do? You can’t sit around the house kicking the dog or drinking too much scotch – you’ve got to take the kids to school. It led to a burst of energy,” he says.

“When I was at the National in the 1970s and 80s the joke in the green room was always that ‘Rutter could never play kings’ – because of my accent. (He was born in Hull, but his accent these days appears to encompass the whole of Yorkshire, forcefully).

“And I thought ‘why bloody not?’.”

In 1992, Rutter came home, to play in Tony Harrison’s Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at Salts Mill.

“Tony Harrison taught me the dignity of my own voice.”

That year, with what Rutter calls “sweet serendipity” (he does that sort of thing a lot) his home city of ’Ull (he never gives the city it’s first consonant) was celebrating the 700th year of receiving its charter. Despite Polonius advising “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, Rutter saw a pool of cash and headed to Hull to grab his share.

“I tapped into that and we got some money and I rehearsed Richard III in an old marina, a boat shed in Hull. That’s where it all began.”

In interviews, the newspaper style is to give someone their full name initially and then call them by their surname through the rest of the piece, so I was always going to write “Rutter” all the way through this piece. But it is relevant for you to get a total sense of the man to know that when he calls or meets anyone, he introduces himself as “Rutter”, giving it an earthy tone in the pronunciation, hitting the double-T of his name like Muhammad Ali hit a punchback.

So, Rutter knew when he decided to stage Richard III using his own accent, there was every chance the London critics might dislike the idea, or worse, simply not understand.

Not, of course, that he says he cared.

“It was about doing Shakespeare in that honest, short vowel, wonderful granite limestone grit consonants voice,” he says.

“I had no idea I was forming something that would form the rest of my life, I just had this burning idea that I knew I had to get off the ground.”

The idea got off the ground. The audiences loved it, the national theatre critics acted like this was a stroke of genius.

Rutter, clearly, enjoyed the glow of the spotlight.

“Let’s face it, it was revolutionary. Nobody had done this before,” he says, before revealing the tiniest chink in the impenetrable shell of righteousness and confidence in the idea that is Rutter.

“I didn’t know there’d be a year two, never mind a year 20 and it’s all really rather exhilirating,” he lets out a delighted giggle and his inquisitive eyebrows, which naturally reach for the sky and make anyone talking to him feel like they are at the mercy of an inquisitor, become a cheery addition to a happy face.

“We’ve created, pioneered and supported several venues around the country, I single-handedly created the Viaduct (in Halifax, the company’s home) we pioneered Skipton Cattle Market as a venue, The Riding Stables at Thoresby, Salts Mill – that’s not a bad little backpack to have, is it?”

You might think Rutter is a man who carries around a statue of Rutter, lest anyone forget what he has achieved or Who He Is. Truth is, he is forever playing a character and he does name check Sue Andrews, the indefatigable general manager who has been with the company since the early days, and associate Conrad Nelson, who he met as “a wetback scally at The National”. Both have been integral, admits Rutter, to the success of Broadsides.

After that impressive start in 1992, the company started to tour with the Northern-voiced Shakespeare and new translations of classics from Tony Harrison, Blake Morrison, not to mention Alcestis, written by Ted Hughes and gifted to the company shortly before his death.

Rutter still felt like an outsider, or at least, that’s what he says. It is perfectly possible he simply needs something against which he can fight. When we meet he’s about to open Love’s Labour’s Lost at Newcastle-Under-Lyme in Staffordshire, the company’s second home outside Halifax.

“This is as far south as we go with this,” he says, the man in charge of a 20-year-old company complaining about not being part of the theatre “establishment”.

“Unless we shout, we don’t get picked up and you get bored of shouting. We’re on a branch line, Nick, in the North. I’m not saying there’s a North-South divide. I’m not saying it. You can say it in t’paper.” The eyebrows point skyward, his eyes at my notebook.

In 2000 he won the Creative Briton Award, which gave him £100,000 to spend on the company.

“It was after that the Arts Council made us a Regularly Funded Organisation. As Sir Ernest Hall said, I shamed them into funding me properly,” he says. Didn’t Polonius say something like beware of entrance to a quarrel?

“It is a surprise we’re still here. There were a lot of points when we could have folded. It’s a testament to the right sort of bloody mindedness, but you do get fed up. How many arts ministers and heads of this and that have I gone through in 20 years? Coming up here and telling me what to do? We’ve had some battles over the years.”

He sounds like a war-weary general, and over 10 years I’ve often wondered to him, if he might be ready to move on. Each time I’ve wondered if I was about to wear a Rutter punch.

This time he admits the battle is tough.

Last year the Arts Council funding cuts were a tense time. Rutter says for the first time in the 20 years, he might have been ready to give up the fight.

“I don’t know if Broadsides can survive. If we hadn’t got the funding last year, we wouldn’t have made a song and dance. We’d have said ‘fine, you don’t want us, we’ll go’.”

It’s like seeing Superman under the effect of Kryptonite.

The eyebrows virtually touch the ceiling. “Of course, people – like you – might have made a song and dance on our behalf. And we may have stoked the fire.”

It’s all an act. Rutter’s going nowhere. That idea he had, 20 years ago, that was a response to people telling him what he couldn’t do, still burns bright.

“We’ve been to India, Brazil, China, New York, all round Britain. We’ve taught Lenny Henry (who starred in Othello) Shakespeare, the number of actors and craftsman that have come through us – we’ve worked with Tom Paulin, Blake Morrison. It’s not a bad CV, is it?”.

Polonious’s most famous piece of advice is “this above all, to thine own self be true”.

I suspect Rutter knows the speech intimately.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, Feb 29 to Mar 3. West Yorkshire Playhouse, Apr 3 - 14. All tour dates: