As Northern Broadsides marks its 25th anniversary, Nick Ahad takes a walk down memory lane with founder Barrie Rutter and finds the future is far from certain.
Early January, I’m in a damp Hull on my way to meet an idealistic, ambitious, visionary. The man I am looking for is called Barrie Rutter. An actor-manager of the type that theatre was full of in the 19th century, the role Rutter occupies today is not so much outdated as virtually extinct. Actor-manager: even the term is a throwback to a time when theatres across the land saw the likes of Henry Irving, Charles Wyndham and Sarah Bernhardt tread the boards.
Not that he looks like a man who carries the mantle of a tradition that stretches back centuries. When we meet, 70-year-old Rutter is wearing… Crocs. The rubbery soles will transport the old soul down to Hull’s marina and back to where it all started.
It was 25 years ago today, to the very day, that Northern Broadsides was born at that marina, in a boatshed where Rutter staged a now famous production of Richard III.
Tomorrow the company will host a fundraiser and 25th birthday celebration of that moment at its home in Halifax, Dean Clough. What the guests might not know is that the celebrations for Rutter and the company will be a little muted.
While the past assures a place in theatrical history for Rutter and his cohort who made the dream of Northern Broadsides into a reality, the future is for now, unwritten.
The reason I met Rutter early in the year was because I am making a documentary for BBC Radio Leeds about the company, which will air later this year. Northern Broadsides at 25 was set to be a retrospective to celebrate the indomitable theatre company reaching its quarter-century, but it became clear that the real story was more complex than simply a celebration of a brilliant theatre company.
Since January I have visited Rutter and Broadsides on several occasions. I’ve been to Stoke to see his right-hand man Conrad Nelson and Nelson’s right-hand woman Deborah McAndrew, the team which has written and directed together for the company on several occasions. I’ve been to Hull several times to watch Rutter rehearse Richard III, the play which launched the company in 1992, and I’ve watched him at opening nights, greeting his audience warmly.
Bombastic though he is when talking of his company, when no one else is around the mask occasionally slips a little and he confesses that there is something worrying in the state of Broadsides.
“Yes, I suppose there is a cloud over us,” says Rutter at one of our recording sessions out on a rooftop terrace at Hull Truck Theatre.
At the end of this month Northern Broadsides will discover if the funding they have applied for in the next three-year cycle of Arts Council spending has been granted. If the money Rutter and company manager Sue Andrews have applied for doesn’t materialise, big decisions will need to be taken.
“It will be… we don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Rutter, one of the few times in the past few months I have seen him lost for words.
Back to that first moment in January, when we meet outside Hull Truck Theatre to begin our walk down to the marina. When he emerges I’m surprised to see that his long white hair, which he sported throughout 2016, is cut short.
What’s happened to the long locks, Barrie?
Without missing a beat: “I’ve done a Samson,” he bellows, seemingly to the whole of Hull.
“Me daughter is a producer here and she said ‘worrav you done?’. I’ve done a Samson.” He’s even louder the second time around, his laugh booming around the UK City of Culture.
I’ve heard Rutter called a lot of different things by lots of different people. Playwright and Broadsides patron Mike Poulton says he is full of Northern grit. Actor Mark Addy calls him an inspiration and Blake Morrison reckons he represents true Northern spirit.
Subtle is a word that has yet to come up.
We start the journey from Hull Truck’s theatre down to the marina and Rutter provides a running commentary as we go, although not before he’s issued me with a reprimand. I’ve been interviewing him since 2004 and at some point in each and every interview there have been stern words. Most recently he called me a “duck egg” live on my BBC Radio Leeds show, in response to a question he deemed daft.
The question that earns me the Rutter hairdryer treatment as we stand outside Hull Truck Theatre on Ferensway was pretty innocuous.
“Do you remember the old Hull Truck building…?” I was going to add “fondly” but he cuts me off.
“Remember it? I opened it! I spoke the first words on the bloody stage at the old Spring Street building three years before Mike Bradwell came and christened it Hull Truck.”
Sorry for asking.
The response, a chest-beating “do you know who I am-ism?”, is the spirit with which Rutter established Northern Broadsides in 1992. Everyone said he was barmy – I’ve seen the national press cuttings wondering if Richard III would be calling “My kingdom for an ‘Oss” (the actual headline from The Mirror when theatre reviews in national newspapers were still considered worthy).
Rutter, though, believed. He believed a company celebrating Shakespeare and the Northern voice was a worthy pursuit.
“Tony Harrison, that great Northern poet, taught me about the dignity of my own voice,” he says.“It was him what wrote [Rutter has certain affectations] Trackers of Oxyrhynchus for us.”
As we walk towards the marina and to the most important location in the history of Broadsides, Rutter explains the feeling of homecoming he has in Hull.
“I’ve been peripatetic all my professional life, so wherever I am is home, but Hull is always home really,” he says. “We lived down by Hessle Road fish dock, down one of the streets Larkin calls ‘ships up streets’. Due to circumstances I lived with my granny and dad. I had to share a bedroom with my dad until I was 18. That’s not very healthy. Not for me or him.”
He was also the only grammar school boy on his street which earned him a “kicking” of sorts.
“Not literal, but I were different to the other lads on my street. Different term times and the like. Me granny didn’t let me drop trousers until I was 14.” (I assume he means stop wearing shorts to school).
It was at grammar school that a teacher told him to “put his gob to use” and get on the stage.
“I was the leading light in the school plays,” he says, writing his own reviews even back then.
“I never had any idea what I was going to do. I had a vague idea of being a geography teacher because I enjoyed the subject, but I didn’t really have any ideas.”
Fortunately, a schoolteacher, Mr Siddle, did. He got the forms for the National Youth Theatre and helped young Rutter, who scraped five O levels allowing him to stay on at sixth form, to fill them out. He also helped him apply for drama school, with Rutter choosing Glasgow because “there were a truck service that went from Hull to Glasgow and you could get up there for 10 bob rather than the three pound seven and six it cost to go to London”.
So off he went on his 10 bob journey, one that results in him standing in a boatshed, looking back on a quarter of a century of a theatre that is almost always described in any press coverage as “indomitable”.
Did he ever think he’d be here?
“I didn’t know if we’d be here after that first production,” he says, exasperatingly still playing the part of Barrie Rutter, pretending like it’s all been a happy accident.
“No one knew there’d be a year two, let alone a year 25.”
Then, the mask slips. The eyes twinkle and a broad grin breaks out across his face.
“But I knew we had summat.”
Northern Broadsides at 25, a documentary by Nick Ahad, will be broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds later this year.