THEATRE / It's right grand: Jeffrey Wainwright relishes Barrie Rutter's Northern Falstaff

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The Independent Culture
THE looms may have gone but the vowels remain. Northern Broadsides open their new production at Salts Mill in the great disused weaving shed first used for theatre when Tony Harrison brought his The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus here in 1990. That show was the catalyst for the foundation of a company of northern-born actors performing 'in the Northern voice'.

There is nothing quaintly parochial about the company's approach. They have lopped 'Windsor' from Shakespeare's title but resisted the temptation to substitute Wycollar or Widnes and dab on other bits of local colour. This is emphatically not Shakespeare with a northern accent, but Shakespeare in a northern voice, with all the bodily depth, personal and cultural rootedness the word implies.

In production terms, the voice is paramount. As a light touring show it has no set, few props and uses a version of modern dress which Jessica Worrall exaggerates with some well-chosen characterising features. The actors need nothing more. Shakespearean prose often seems a dense thicket, but here every branch of meaning is clearly limned and every cluster of elaboration lovingly put forth. Above all, the glorious sensuousness of the language is relished with a rare intensity. Early on, when Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are devising the venal Falstaff's comeuppance, Ms Ford proposes to 'entertain him with hope, till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease'. Elizabeth Estensen takes each of the three central words, 'hope', 'lust' and 'grease', and makes their different vowels little worlds of anticipation in themselves. She and the superb Polly Hemingway as Ms Page measure sexiness, mischief and prim propriety to the last spoonful.

Barrie Rutter's Falstaff is a figure to be found in the saloon bars of Garter Inns the length and breadth of England, a type that might be called disreputable-respectable. He wears the cricket chap's blazer and grey flannels and a variety of raffish neckwear, an outfit that was probably the early pickings from a Conservative Bring-and-Buy. The circumference of his self-regard - 'I do love thee and thou deservst it' - and his lascivious rapacity - 'My doe with the black scut]' - are ineffable and there is no rosy- cheeked lovable roguishness about this Sir John. If anything he is a touch too unlikeable, making it hard to listen to his plea to 'consider his frailty'. But all the words are so many plump capons to his appetite. His voicing of words like 'haunch', 'cozen' and of course 'fat' is a rich delight.

Rutter also directs with swift economy and draws from his cast an entire gallery of distinct and recognisable types. Virtually every character is interestingly detailed, from the flashy ebullience of Conrad Nelson's Host, to the earnest, best-suit and clean-shoes determination of Andy Wear as Fenton, Anne Page's true love. As her other suitor, Slender, John Gully is in a fine perpetual ecstasy of moony bashfulness. This is a company palpably filled with self-belief and enjoyment. Their show is no curiosity, but simply a very fine production which incidentally makes it obvious and unremarkable that Shakespeare can be done in this voice.

At Salts Mill, Bradford, ends today, 7.30pm; 0274-752000. Touring to Hull, Barrow, Saltburn, Alnwick, Halifax, Middleham, Warrington and Oldham until mid-August.

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