THEATRE / Barrie Rutter, Shakespeare-wallah: When Northern Broadsides performed its version of 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' in the Punjab, 50 armed policemen turned up. Robert Butler was there too

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IT COULD be an ordinary technical rehearsal of The Merry Wives: on stage, Roy North, the father, marks his new entrance and exit with Adam Warren, the young suitor. 'You wrong me, sir, thus still to haunt my house,' he says. Then on walks a military policeman wearing a turban and carrying an AK47 assault rifle. They stare at one another. Director Barrie Rutter walks down the stone steps of the auditorium, a panama on his head and a bottle of mineral water in his hand. 'Hang on,' he says.

Gary Dunnington, who plays the tapster, appears from backstage: 'There's 50 soldiers back here.' Robert Putt, the Welsh parson, is unfazed: 'Do you want to come through, lads?'

The scene is the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, a town in the Punjab, built by Le Corbusier. When the Frenchman had finished creating his modern European town in northern India, a pile of rocks was left over. Out of that rubble a local architect built the magnificent Rock Garden - with a waterfall, lake, and open-air theatre. It's the town's most popular building.

It is here that Northern Broadsides, the Bradford-based company founded two years ago to do classic texts in Northern voices, is preparing for tonight's performance of Merry Wives. But the police look as if they are going to put on a rival show. The actors sit on the steps studying the guns and dark- green uniforms and the police stand on stage studying the visitors' T-shirts and shorts. This isn't the meeting of cultures the British Council has in mind.

The stage manager, Fraser Marlow, niftily takes advantage of the break to test out some new firecrackers. (Customs wouldn't let him import the ones they used in England.) 'Don't shoot, anyone]' he says, blithely.

The cast knew about the hazards of uncooked vegetables, mosquitoes and the price of beer in hotel bars. But the past 24 hours had introduced them to Punjabi politics. On the train up from Delhi, armed guards patrolled the aisles. At the hotel, too, police kept watch at the end of every corridor.

The heavy police presence provides a

bizarre backdrop for the romantic ambitions of Sir John Falstaff. But the reason 50 armed police are conducting a security search in the middle of a rehearsal is that the audience tonight will include the Governor of Punjab.

This is a one-off performance, and backstage, actors and actresses share a single changing area. Costumes hang from a clothes-line in the open courtyard. Red-hot coals are taken out of the fire and used in the iron. Unfortunately the ironing gives an unwelcome sheen to the clothes. Worse, a close-fitting top for Mistress Ford (Elizabeth Estensen) turns into a baggy vest.

After the technical rehearsal, some of the cast wander off to photograph the Himalayas, while others spray themselves with insect repellent and try to chat up a beautiful usherette in a lime-green sari. ('I am here to help you in any way I can,' she says.)

A crowd gathers outside the Rock Garden; 700 people file through security checks that wouldn't disgrace an airport. Another 200 are turned away. It's just as well that Northern Broadsides' approach to Shakespeare is broad, fast and attention-grabbing. As the armed police patrol the parapets overlooking the stage, alternative dialogue pours out of their walkie-talkies. Rutter makes each swaggering entrance as Falstaff down a stone staircase. Wolfit couldn't have asked for more. Even the police lean over the edge and grin when Dr Caius (Lawrence Evans) duels - using Indian staves - with the Welsh parson.

Half the props were picked up over here. The rickety hut in which Falstaff hides was knocked together on the first afternoon in Poona. That same day, the administrator, Sue Andrews, was

asking local shop-owners for the largest bras and knickers they had in stock; preferably soiled. They kept offering her clean ones. As he searches for Falstaff in the buckbasket, Ford (Edward Peel) hurls this dirty linen high in the air.

The company performs Merry Wives in modern dress, with no set, minimum props and a handful of lighting cues. It's a challenge. A step-ladder stands for Herne's Oak and Falstaff's antlers are bicycle handlebars. But their vigour and directness win over this largely Sikh audience. They greet half a dozen of the final lines with rounds of applause.

The British Council, which organised the four-week tour, and Standard Chartered, which sponsored it, may be well pleased, but not everyone is happy. Halfway though, the Governor turns to the man from the British Council and asks how much longer this is going to last. Nearly an hour, he is told. That's too long for the Governor. He gets up and leaves, taking his bodyguards with him.

On the coach back to the hotel, the actors are delighted ('The best gig I've ever done') and outraged ('The bloody Governor left in the middle'): if he comes to the reception, it looks as if he will need protection from them, too. Later, on the hotel lawn (buffet, band, speeches and dancing), news emerges about the Governor. He'd loved the show, apparently. But when he'd turned to the man from the British Council, his eyes were red and tears were streaming down his cheeks: the tightest security in the Punjab couldn't save him from an attack of hay fever.

Towards midnight the actors queue up to shake hands with a VIP that they actually recognise. It's Kapil Dev, the Indian cricketer, up here for a one-day international. Next morning Northern Broadsides will leave at five, stepping over sleeping bodies on the station platform, as hundreds of mina birds chatter noisily in the red dawn. But this isn't the last that Chandigarh will hear of the Northern voice. Geoffrey Boycott arrives that afternoon.

'Merry Wives' is at the Lyric Hammersmith (081-741 2311), Tues to 22 Jan.