Northern Broadsides’ new production of Much Ado About Nothing opens in Huddersfield

Robin Simpson as Benedick and Isobel Middleton as Beatrice. (Picture: Nobby Clark).
Robin Simpson as Benedick and Isobel Middleton as Beatrice. (Picture: Nobby Clark).
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This is a slightly tricky article to write. It needs to be about a show coming to Yorkshire on the back of some wonderful reviews. It’s also about the man who directed that show stepping down from the role of artistic director of a theatre company he’s worked with for over two decades.

Conrad Nelson is only the second artistic director in the 27-year history of Northern Broadsides.

He stepped into the breach in the summer of 2017 after the previous man in charge, Barrie Rutter, the firebrand who set up the company, stepped down in the wake of controversy around Arts Council funding.

“Having been associate director since 2003 and having had dual responsibility for programming, it made sense for me to step into the role of interim artistic director to keep the status quo and to advance the company,” says Nelson.

It came as no surprise that Nelson would step into the breach after Rutter’s departure. What has come as a little bit of a surprise is that he has decided not to continue in the role of artistic director.

“I felt like I had done what was needed, which was to be a bridge between Rutter and the new person,” he says. The new person is Laurie Sansom, former artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

“The future of the company will hopefully be rosy. Having been associated with the company for 27 years my hope is that it goes on to have more success, I didn’t want to feel after all that time that this was the endgame. I like to think we’ve created a significant platform and that there is still a place for the company and for the work it creates in a regional voice.”

That, of course, has always been Halifax-based Northern Broadsides’ raison d’etre: to present classic plays in a Northern voice. It was Rutter’s righteous anger that drove the company, when he was told he would never play the king in any Shakespeare play because of his Northern accent.

The company has become much more than an angry response to metropolitan prejudice; it has become one of our leading touring theatre companies and a vital part of Yorkshire’s artistic ecology. It’s going to be exciting to see where Sansom, who spent the early part of his career at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, leads the company.

So what next for Nelson?

One of the most skilled actors of his generation (anyone who witnessed his Iago or Richard III in the past decade will surely agree), he hasn’t, arguably, received the profile his talents deserve. Partly a regional prejudice? Perhaps. But the bigger story is that Nelson follows what is most interesting to him, rather than big pay days or roles that will increase his profile.

In 2003 he and wife Deborah McAndrew, a long time Broadsides collaborator, set up Claybody Theatre company in their home town of Stoke-on-Trent. Claybody is one of the projects that will keep Nelson busy when he leaves Broadsides.

“We still have all the energy to 
run a company, but we also have 
the knowledge of what it takes to 
run a company. We’ve been there before at the beginning, when everything is sparse and you have to work out how to put work on stage,” he says.

“Claybody will tell the stories of the community where it is based. We stage work in spaces in the community, spaces where people feel comfortable entering.”

That’s a description you may recognise. It’s exactly what Broadsides was built on. Nelson, it would appear, is about to set out on a new but familiar adventure. You wouldn’t bet against him.

Before that, though, is the question of his swansong. The final production Broadsides is staging with Nelson at the helm is a new version of Much Ado About Nothing, which has been touring since February to huge acclaim.

It is fitting that the Shakespeare classic is the final show Nelson stages as director before he departs: he has a long history with the play, appearing in the 1993 Kenneth Branagh movie version, a job which ironically meant he missed the very first Northern Broadsides production.

“For this production we knew we wanted to do a Shakespeare, because it’s been a couple of years since we’ve staged one and we knew we wanted to do a comedy,” he says.

“I directed Much Ado at drama school and have all these connections, so it felt like the perfect way to say goodbye.”

Much Ado About Nothing, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, April 16-20. Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, April 25-May 4. York Theatre Royal, May 14-18. Harrogate Theatre, May 21-25.