HOW DO YOU SAY `NOWT'?

Bennett, Leeds, Barrie Rutter, luvvies and loves, dialogue and dialect, Bennett again: the stage is set for Blake Morrison's theatrical dbut. This is his production diary
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The Independent Culture
May 1988

Complete first draft of translation of Heinrich von Kleist's Der Zerbrochene Krug for National Theatre. It's a classic small-town courtroom drama, relatively simple to stage and based on some figures Kleist once saw on a copper engraving (jug, judge, angry Hausfrau, accused young man, anguished young woman). Richard Eyre directed the play some years back, and has commissioned this new vernacular version in the hope of directing it again. Hand typescript in but hear nothing. Assume he's too busy running the shop to leave the counter, or that whoever's read it, if anyone has, simply doesn't like what I've done.

August 1993

Get up early during holiday to finish re-write of The Broken Jug for Barrie Rutter of Northern Broadsides. The National's rights on the translation have lapsed, and Barrie wants a second, more specifically Yorkshire, version for his small company to tour the North with. I press on, but with scepticism. Barrie's tours with Richard III and The Merry Wives have been a great success: imaginative productions of Shakespeare brought to small-town theatres, community centres, warehouses, disused mills, underground viaducts, boat sheds. And his own experience in the parts of Falstaff and Richard III is perfect preparation for the village judge, Adam, in the Jug, a Machiavellian hedonist. But what chance does Kleist have of playing to full houses - or even half-empty ones?

November 1994

Good news. The West Yorkshire Playhouse have taken on the Jug, which Barrie will direct and take the lead role in. Bad news. He still finds it stilted, and wants another re-write, with bolder use of dialect. He says we need a different title, too. We swap candidates: The Yorkshire Judge, Judgement Day, A Day in Jug, Rough Justice, Adam's Ale, Madam I'm Adam - my suggestions, all pretty terrible. Finally, we settle on one of Barrie's, The Cracked Pot.

Mon 30 Jan 1995

Inauspicious start. Arrive late for the first production meeting, and find a tight ring of actors and Playhouse staff. "Ah, the author," says Barrie Rutter, trying to make me feel welcome but only making me feel an imposter. Author? The real author is Heinrich von Kleist. My role, as translator and adaptor, is to honour his wishes. Unfortunately, Kleist has been dead for nearly 200 years (he shot himself in a suicide pact with a terminally ill woman in 1811), and I haven't been able to ask him what he feels about having his play, set in Utrecht in 1700, moved to Skipton, West Yorkshire, circa 1810.

First read-through of the script. Have absorbed enough of Alan Bennett and Simon Gray's production diaries to be paranoid about this. Am on the lookout for the merest hint from the actors that they don't think the script up to much, why are they squandering their talents on such stuff, why can't they work with a decent playwright - an Alan Bennett or Simon Gray - instead? But all goes well. The actors even laugh as they do their bits, and in the right places, too. I feel a glow, then remember that it's Kleist's jokes they're laughing at, not mine.

The Pot takes 90 minutes to read. An immediate problem. Should it be cut back to 80 minutes and done straight through, without an interval? Or if there's a break where, in the rapid succession of scenes, should it go? When Goethe first produced Der Zerbrochene Krug in Weimar in 1808, he did it in three parts. It was not a success, and Kleist never forgave him. No wonder. The audience can barely have been back in their seats when it was time to break for another ice-cream.

Drinks at six with the cast of Sharman MacDonald's The Winter Guest, who are playing in the Courtyard Theatre, the space which we will occupy next. Meet Jude Kelly, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who grew up in Liverpool and tells me about her childhood obsession with WF Yeames's painting And When Did You Last See Your Father?, which hangs in the Walker Art Gallery. Round the time of the Great Train Robbery in 1963, her family enjoyed a sudden rise in living standards: a black-and- white television was acquired, and her mother was able to drink the occasional glass of sherry - the life of Riley. The new affluence, she was told, had come because her father had been promoted, but young Jude knew that in reality he must be one of the great train robbers and that sooner or later she'd be interrogated about his dirty secret. Every outing to the Walker was a horrible reminder: any day now there'd be a knock at the door and the boy on the footstool in the painting would be her.

Tues 31 Jan

Playhouse at 10.30. No rehearsal room to rehearse in, not even a decent meeting-room to meet in, on account of the Year of the Pig, which large numbers of Leeds's Chinese population come to celebrate at the theatre. A dragon dances to firecrackers, then weaves its way inside, the illusion broken only when, halfway up the foyer stairs, one young man steps out from under its head and another takes his place. You'll not see a niftier costume change.

On a second read-through, the actors vaguely moving about this time, there seems to be rather more wrong with the script than yesterday. You only have to stand people up, it seems, and the words fall down: they slow the action, they don't explain why X is feeling or behaving in such a way at such a time, they're clichd or forced or anachronistic. Resign myself to a much bigger re-write than I'd hoped.

Talk about it later to Barrie, who says the play has just three problems. Dawns on me as he explains them that what he means is: the beginning, the middle and the end.

Inspect some publicity material. Play now subtitled A Yorkshire Comedy. Worry that this may look even more a self-contradiction than A German Comedy. Remember a piece, in this newspaper, just before Christmas, asking why no funny Yorkshiremen. Easy two-word answer to that - Alan Bennett - but still there's a prejudice that every writer from the Ridings is dour, dull or dead. If no one believes in Yorkshire comedy, will anyone go to the Pot?

Go to see The Winter Guest, directed by Alan Rickman. Spectacularly icy set, excellent acting (including two young teenagers), and a dis- maying number of laughs. Had hoped it would be deeply sombre and pretentious (four-hour Strindbergian monologue in which blind widow played by Liv Ullman looks back on life in small fishing community and contemplates drowning herself in fjord, that sort of thing) so that our Yorkshire comedy couldn't help but seem comic by comparison. No such luck.

Wed 1 Feb

Rehearsal studio. Now we know exact stage dimensions we'll have in three weeks' time (oblong area has been taped out over the floor), and they seem frighteningly big. How will a cast of eight ever fill the stage? Where should they put themselves? Even they don't seem sure, yet. Only Barrie Rutter is, charging about and speaking everyone else's part as well as his own. Have never worked with theatre director before, so don't know how others compare to him. But can't imagine many, whatever their intellectual grasp of text, have his actor's ability to speak the words with the right intonations, do the facial expressions, perform the gestures.

Not for first time, regret not having got into drama at school. Was too shy, mainly - couldn't ask the dinner lady for pudding without turning beetroot - and got no further than non-speaking part opening the school revue, when I bashed a dustbin lid with a mop, like the man hitting the gong at the front of Rank films. But shyness doesn't seem to have stopped other people becoming actors or directors, and if I'd had some such experience I might be more help now.

Northern Broadsides may suggest jolly fraternity propagandising on behalf of pits, whippets and Nye Bevan. But four of the actors here haven't worked with Barrie before. Only three of them live permanently in the north. And though certainly a propagandist for a certain kind of northern culture, Barrie, who lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, is primarily a propagandist for Shakespeare. Among his greatest Stratford triumphs was slipping inside the staff car park of The Other Place after a barrier had been installed. Finding himself up against it, with an entrycode to his right and two cars impatiently behind, he took a guess and punched in 1564, Shakespeare's birthdate. The barrier rose.

During rehearsals, worry if the Pot's depiction of abuse and manipulation of the legal system is too obvious. Back in hotel room, watch OJ Simpson trial on Sky and decide it's not.

Thurs 2 Feb

First real thoughts about props. Our designer is Polly Richards, granddaughter of the great Jocelyn Herbert, and already she's picked me up on various historical inaccuracies. In Kleist, Adam injures himself, or says he does, on a cast-iron stove, from which an ornamental goat's head butts out; they didn't have such stoves in 19th-century Yorkshire, only ranges. Other prop questions. Will the characters wear clogs? How much food and drink is it realistic for the actors to consume? Everyone's in favour of a "practical" meal (ie, real nosh and real ale) but with no exits to provide relief Barrie is worried about the characters getting "waterlogged", even though he himself once got through 11 bottles on stage in 45 minutes (in Vaclav Havel's play Conversation). Food and drink sometimes an incentive to actors. Barrie tells story of well- known but hard-up actor who surprisingly agreed to play You Never Can Tell in Derby. Why, his friends asked. "Because there's a practical meal in Act 3."

Main prop problem: how to do Adam's club foot? Just a limp, or the works, with bandages? In Kleist, the Klumpfuss is important, and was one of the few details of the play that stayed with me between studying it for A level and coming to translate it 20 years later. One reason it stayed was that, hitch-hiking in Crete circa 1976, I was given a lift by a German doctor who had a club foot. It was the first one I'd seen (it's still the only one I've seen), and I spent most of an enjoyable day in his company suppressing the urge to employ the one arcane German word in my vocabulary. Klumpfuss. You never know when a foreign language may come in useful, my parents used to say - or unusable.

Spend the afternoon watching Barrie rehearse Adam's description of his fall and agonising over how much re-writing it needs. Catch the 5.05 train back to London, which gets just short of Doncaster when someone falls under it. Nothing like death to put art in perspective.

Sat 4 Feb

Spring sunshine, and a long list of re-writes to do over the weekend, which Barrie - like me dividing his time between garden and study - adds to almost hourly by fax. The play is rich in insults and imprecations, but some of my swear-words sound too modern and I try to find a vernacular which is authentic Yorkshire dialect yet suitable for blank verse. I've one great source, a glossary of 4,000 dialect words from Richard Blakeborough's book Yorkshire Wit, Character, Folklore & Customs (1911), among them lig, scraffle, swither, crowp, crammel, flaumy, nazzled, rafflepack, whallacking and splaudy. Kleist's hero may well be a bit of a misogynist, and Yorkshire dialect is rich both in words that insult women (trail-tripes, flappy-sket, nazz-moll, gillifer, gammerstang, lad-louper) and in words that describe hitting and fighting (drop, dub, lammace, lounder, neavil, plate, raddle, skelp, slot, swipe, welt). You can feel like a fraud, sometimes, reviving lost speech from dead dictionaries (as Hugh MacDiarmid did in his early poems), and it's an idea to temper the archaeology with pure invention. But at best, old Yorkshire is simply more alive and expressive than its modern equivalent. Is there a better word for a hedgehog than a "prickyback", or for diarrhoea than "scutters"?

Mon 6 Feb

Anyway, dialect more alive than you might think. The Leeds taxi-driver this morning: "It's a day for topping thasen, right enough. I've nobbut 12 quid on t'clock when by rights it should be 30 by now. They're saying we'll get snow in t'backend of t'week. Tha should've seen all t'tossers out driving last week. Fooking doltheads, they were." Feel like replacing his Please Refrain from Smoking sticker with another: Estuary English not spoken here.

Come back armed with re-writes. One or two of the actors, who've spent the weekends rehearsing their lines, not altogether appreciative, but Barrie always eager for more. Says his record for late rehearsing was with the National Youth Theatre in 1969, directing Peter Terson's Fuzz, when they did the last scene during the interval of the opening night.

Tues 7 Feb

Report this morning that Leeds City Council telephonists, temporarily banned from using the word "love" to callers, have now been reprieved - partly thanks to the intervention of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, which pointed out the long history of this endearment. Good for the YDS. Leeds a city of loves, not luvvies.

Alan Bennett's Getting On opened tonight at the Playhouse (Timothy West starring, Prunella Scales directing). Took my mother to see it, Bennett being a playwright you can safely take your mother to, even if he's a lot less safe, and (as he says) a lot less nice, than people think. Suppose it, too, is a Yorkshire comedy, though it's set in London and is the play which Bennett felt, when it won the Evening Standard prize as best comedy of 1971, had been entered as a marrow and won the cucumber prize instead. Anyway, a rival to us, since it shares our run. Reassuringly, not all the actors seem comfortable with their lines. Unreassuringly, the jokes are matchlessly funny. Beside Bennett's aphoristic wit, the Pot is feudal comedy.

During interval, Barrie introduces me to one of the sponsors of Northern Broadsides, a tall, affable, local businessman. On the first night of the company's A Midsummer Night's Dream, this man was given a seat bang in the middle of the front row and slept conspicuously through most of the evening. Wonder if he'll be given a front-row seat for our first night and do the same. Even worse thought: he'll be inconspicuously asleep because everyone else is too.

Wed 8 Feb

The Playhouse is a model of how to use public space. Every morning a hive of activity, as different groups come in to writing workshops, arts- and-crafts sessions, etc. The Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, must have been impressed when shown round today, though, typically, he failed to visit the one place where live theatre was happening, our rehearsal studio.

The Pot's early scenes are almost there now, and I feel a bit of a spare part. Yesterday, one of the actors came up with a brilliant suggestion for the use of a clothes-horse, one of our few props. Isn't that what I'm supposed to be here for, to have bright ideas? No doubt Barrie feels a bit threatened, too, or could do, if he didn't believe that this is how plays evolve: he's a ferociously strong director (arguing with him would be like arguing with an InterCity) and won't allow textual improvisations (as any author would, I approve), but he's always receptive to ideas about the staging. At breakfast he said of this young actor: "He's good. He reminds me of my young self. That's why I have to slap him down a bit -but in a helpful way, like no one did with me."

Images of Barrie at work, not just an actor-director (like Prunella Scales and Alan Rickman) but an acting actor-director. Explaining key concepts of the play then snapping them out later as headline reminders of the effects the actors should be striving for: "Marx Brothers", "tennis", "football", "Roman road", "Crucible", "Heart Machine", "Four-engine bombers". Summarising 30 pages of text in a single bravura performance of his own, in which he speaks everyone's key lines. Winding the actors up when he thinks he's not getting the best out of them: "You said when we gave you the part you could do it." Holding forth: "Tragedies are about people up there; comedies are more heartfelt, because they're about us." "Acting's a holy trinity: head, heart and genitals." "Culture's not a castle-keep: it's for everyone." "Before you get to where you want to be, you've got to go the moon." "To learn control, first you've got to lose it."

Ring home. Daughter is in the school production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. "They've decided I've got to be turned to stone for the rest of the play after I've spoken two lines."

Thurs 9 Feb

A blow. Barrie tells me that in the week the Pot opens, there's a new Stoppard, Ralph Fiennes's Hamlet, a revival of Joe Orton, and a lot more besides: ie, fat chance of the London Sundays making it up the M1.

My estimation of Kleist goes up daily. Though some of the asides seem creakingly obvious to a modern audience, there's a lovely symmetry about the play: each witness gets his or her aria. I'm trying to bring this out even more. In the original, six of the 12 characters have generous speaking parts. We've reduced the cast to eight, but in the re-write all of them now get their oar in. Not a matter of being nice to the actors, letting them show off, just that with most of them on stage most of the time, the characters have to be developed. So Tommy (Veit in the original) now makes a long speech about being a tongue-tied Dales farmer.

Debate on correct way to pronounce "nowt". How do people say it in Skipton, cf Leeds, Sheffield, York, Hull? As a child, could tell an Earby accent from an Embsay one, six miles away. Have lost all that, in London, but now, my vowels broadening, am becoming attuned again. Even to my ears, the one Lancastrian in the cast, John Branwell, could come from Mars.

Reduce the number of bastards, buggers and fucks in the text, not from self-censorship, nor because they seem repetitive, nor even out of worrying how widely they would have been used in 1810. Simply that there is such a rich seam of insult-words in Yorkshire dialect without falling back on these old familiars: for example, bowdykite, caufhead, dulbert, geck, gowk, hebblewit, joskin, lurdy, ragabash, strackling.

Barrie starts competition to guess how many times he'll be asked if Kate Rutter, playing our female lead, is his wife/sister/ daughter/mother. (She's no relation.)

Fri 10 Feb

Read Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays, to remind myself Yorkshire dialect has no mono-poly on inventive insult. Prince Hal on Falstaff: "that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoll'n parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years".

Try a different version of the play today, with interval. We're running to 95 minutes, and given the long speeches halfway through and the need for a different tempo, an interval might work. It seems to. But still not sure how to end it. In Kleist, Adam is described running away, which seems a bit Greek Tragedy. Could he come back on stage? Might he be carrying the bantam hen he's gone on about earlier? Live chickens on stage: it's a thought, but obvious risks, and not only from animal-rights protesters.

Two weeks in, huge differences in the actors' preparedness still: some barely know a line, some are word-perfect; some are high-octane already, others evidently saving themselves for opening night. Temperament part of it, but age too: June Broughton, the oldest in the cast, has to work hardest at remembering. Barrie likes to say acting's a profession where age doesn't matter: 22-year-olds can walk straight in and be Hamlet, 82- year-olds can play Lear, no hier-archy of years as in the law, civil service, other arts. But not all directors see it that way, and there's a suspicion that age withers the memory to a dangerous extent. It's why June wouldn't tell us how old she is when we asked today: she has a policy of keeping it to herself - not vanity but professional good sense.

Brainwave on the way home, my first in two weeks, while I'm developing the closing speech of Eve, the one character in the play who doesn't have an aria. She's trying to explain why she has had to remain silent, and I'm looking for an image of her stuffed down the bottom of something, an urn or cave or . . . Then remember the play begins with a hole in a pot, and decide it should end with a pothole. The depth and length of Gaping Ghyll and most of the other Wharfedale potholes weren't explored until later in the 19th century, but anyone in Skipton circa 1810 would have been aware of these spooky caverns. Find, in the OED at home, that first recorded use of pothole was 1839, but am not deterred. Orally, it might have been been around earlier. Eve's can be an early, perhaps even the earliest, example of its usage. Another first for Northern Broadsides.

Sun 12 Feb

Hear Barrie described as a professional Yorkshireman. Wrong. He does it for nowt.

Spend weekend researching bits and pieces to go in the programme: a history of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, 19th-century methods of punishment, bits of contemporary verse, prints, paintings. Know most or all of them won't be used, but do it all the same and ask if I can proof-read programme, too. My wife Kathy wonders whether I'm not exceeding my brief. Says, if the ice-cream lady cries off during the run, I'll no doubt be found in the aisles with a tray of vanilla tubs round my neck.

Tues 14 Feb

Research carried out by Durex suggests Yorkshiremen have sex 79 times a year, Londoners a mere 66. Does this make them more broad-minded in the theatre, though? How will they feel about "Fuck a duckling" and "Fucking tup-tails"?

Wed 15 Feb

Return to set after two days away. Barrie has shaved all his hair off for the part. No easy task, and he's cut himself here and there, which is apt too, since Adam's head should be scratched as well as bald. I add a couplet for the scene where he first looks at himself in the mirror: "I'm like a sheep that's just been fleeced: my skin's / Riddled with cuts where farmer's shears have dug in."

My presence at rehearsal seems less and less compulsory. In fact, scarcely required. Indeed, if I wanted to get paranoid about this, distinctly unwelcome. Not that anyone's unfriendly, but we're only a week away from the previews now, and the actors' greatest dread is that, so long as I sit here, I'll go on fiddling. They've their lines to learn, but so long as I keep mucking about with those lines what chance do they have?

Watching the actors this morning, realise that, on Gerald Ford principle alone, I could never have made an actor. Hard enough walking and chewing gum at same time. How much harder walking about, chewing gum, and remembering every word in a speech of, say, 50 lines of blank verse.

Photographer comes from local paper and poses me beside a judge's wig and gavel while he crouches below. Try to look soulfully auth- orial, not easy because cast all laughing. They explain afterwards that the photographer was showing a wide expanse of flesh, "a right builder's bum". The Cracked Bot.

Thurs 16 Feb

Icy morning. Hangover after evening spent with cast at house of John Ward, the Playhouse's director of corporate affairs. Walk along river by Tetley's factory and Brewery Wharf to let wind blow away headache. Near luxurious warehouse conversions, a tramp in a doorway stands with one bare foot while he takes a penknife to the sole of his shoe - straight out of Beckett or early Pinter.

Yorkshire Post reports that John Gummer has reversed his plan to restore the name "North Riding": too expensive, £1m. The area will remain Cleveland and North Yorkshire, as it's been since 1974, and the Ridings be left to history.

Classic Barrie reprimand today to one of the actors. "Why are you stressing the word `and'? Forget all that drama-school crap, it's so middle-class; you're playing a 19th-century peasant. We've had enough of and-acting. It wrenches the syntax and the inflexions. Keep it clear and simple. Try to think about the words and to say what they mean." A tough director but a tough cast, too: three weeks are up now, and there have been no tears or tantrums or stormings-out.

Acting not the best-paid of professions. Those of the cast not living in the area are staying in digs or with relations. I stay mostly at the modest Golden Lion Hotel but tonight blow the last of my subsistence allowance and treat myself to the Hilton (sauna and swimming pool, an extra £13). Cheer myself up on a lonely wet evening by reading appalling American translation of Kleist.

Fri 17 Feb

Predictable, I suppose, but the way Barrie plays Adam - manipulative, domineering, but generous-hearted country judge - keeps reminding me of my father, manipulative, domineering but generous-hearted country doctor.

Actors more or less back me in corner as I leave for weekend and make me swear at knifepoint that I won't make further alterations.

Miss run-through to audience of eight, mostly the cast of The Winter Guest. Barrie rings to say they were enthusiastic, but before I get too excited reminds me they are, after all, friends. "You can never second- guess the critics."

Mon 20 Feb

Worried about clogs. Authenticity requires them, and Northern Broadsides have made inventive use of them in the past. But will any of the words be heard?

Tues 21 Feb

Party in London for departing Granta editor, Bill Buford. Suggest to one or two friends "Why not come up to Leeds?" Gawping incomprehension. Might as well have said Latvia.

Wed 22 Feb

Out of the rehearsal room and into the theatre at last. Wembley Stadium feeling. The space is modest (350 seats) but a childish excitement at standing centre-stage. Not that I will be on the night: I'll be hiding in the back row. On the other hand, it's not escaped my notice that the budget doesn't extend to understudies. So if someone were to fall ill during the five-week run, and they needed a replacement at short notice . . .

Think I now understand why actors get to be so luvvy-ish. Nine times out of 10, they start from nothing, or worse than nothing: lousy script, irritable director, rotten digs, freezing rehearsal room, fellow actors they don't know or, if they do, don't like. Out of this, implausibly, springs a play, an audience, friendships. A kind of miracle - inevitably provoking euphoria and gush.

! `A Cracked Pot': West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 0113 244211, now previewing, opens Tues, runs to 1 April. On the arts pages next week: the diary of a screenwriter.

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