THEATRE / Regional variations: Barrie Rutter runs a theatre company with a difference: only Northerners need apply. His new show is 'The Merry Wives' - of wherever he happens to be. Robert Butler plays the fly on the wall

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The Independent Culture
EARLY LAST year a London actor was pushing his tray along the canteen counter at the West Yorkshire Playhouse when he bumped into an old friend, Barrie Rutter. They had shared digs and been in productions together. 'What are you doing?' asked the actor. 'I'm running my own company,' Rutter replied. Great, said the actor, brightening at the prospect of work. 'And you can't be in it,' said Rutter, 'You're not from up here.'

Rutter was doing Richard III with a Northern cast. Brian Glover was Buckingham and Rutter wanted Lisa Stansfield, the rock singer, for Lady Anne. Had she acted, asked his friend. 'No, she'll be lovely and raw.' The company was called Northern Broadsides, and as the programme pointed out, though you couldn't miss it in performance, a broadside is a powerful verbal attack.

Richard III opened at the Marina Boatshed in Hull. Lisa Stansfield wasn't in it. But Irving Wardle, theatre critic of the Independent on Sunday, said the production 'was a thrilling departure in classical performance'. The Guardian called it 'a revelation' and the Daily Mail found it 'totally accessible'. Wardle named Rutter (along with another Richard III, Simon Russell Beale) as his Stage Actor of the Year.

This week, Rutter's second production, Merry Wives, opens at Salts Mill, in Bradford. It's a gesture of pure cheek; this is Shakespeare's only comedy to be set in the Home Counties. (In the Chichester production, Mistress Ford was played by the queen of suburbia, Penelope Keith.) Rutter's Merry Wives drops the Windsor from the title, along with references in the play to the Thames, Eton and so on, and substitutes the place-names of wherever they happen to be. Where this is, is half the fun. Rutter's company plays 'non-velvet venues': castles, warehouses, disused mills, underground car parks and the back lawn of Warrington Town Hall. What you get is verse plays in Northern voices in wacky places; and whatever people make of the result, it has an undeniable virtue. It ain't television.

ON NEW Year's Eve, I met Rutter at the Riverside Studios, where Richard III was on. His plans for the next year included a double bill of Richard III and Richard II (getting away from the fey, poetic renderings of Richard II), with Merry Wives thrown in as the comedy. ('I wanted something for the girls.') Big ideas, considering his situation.

Heading south, Richard III had run into flak. The Sunday Times described it as 'a piece of karaoke theatre in which Shakespeare provides the orchestra and the actors have fun providing the voices'; and the Evening Standard said it put regional actors back where they began, 'as comic relief'. This last comment echoed the experience of the Leeds-born poet and playwright Tony Harrison. When he was at Leeds Grammar School, his Yorkshire accent consigned him to reading the character parts in Shakespeare. In his poem 'Them and (uz)', Harrison writes: 'Poetry's the speech of kings. You're one of those /

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose]'

In his dressing-room, Rutter had a letter propped up against the mirror. He had written in a rage to a critic and was now writing an apology ('I was out of order. I know that'). Christmas business had been very poor; some nights they were playing to 30 or 40 people, which was only twice the size of the cast. Ticket prices, he knew, were too high, and if they were going to lose any money it would be his own. 'I was going to go down for nine thousand quid personal,' he told me later. Meanwhile some London reviewers were saying: you're wasting your time. Shakespeare doesn't need flat caps or flat vowels.

BORN IN 1946, Barrie Rutter grew up in Hessle Road, the Fish Dock area of Hull, in the same street as Tom Courtenay. He went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. 'I was the only Englishman, and they were telling me I talked funny.' He joined the National Youth Theatre, under the inspired directorship of Michael Croft, but complained bitterly when he wasn't in their ground-breaking production of Zigger Zagger (they'd moved the setting from Stoke to London). Instead he played Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1 - a character he returned to, 26 years later, the night before last. 'All my memories are to do with pain. I was wearing padding twice a day, and false eyebrows, false wig and false beard.' Most painful of all, he wanted to be in the other play.

The following year, Zigger Zagger's author, Peter Terson, wrote a full-length monologue whose character, 'Rutter', was 'a recalcitrant, truculent sod'. The real Rutter asked him why it was so bleak. 'Because that's what you've been like all year.' So Rutter changed, and so, many rewrites later, did the play. With The Apprentices, 'I was launched into the profession'.

Rutter went to the RSC, but progress was slow. He could never do RP (received pronunciation), so his future lay in character parts. 'I'd have been a mug to think otherwise.' After playing Lollio in The Changeling ('I nicked the notices. Bernard Levin said I was the best thing in it'), he was offered a murderer in Richard III and a Forest Lord in As You Like It. Typically, he said 'Bollocks'. He went to the National Theatre for the Mysteries, The Oresteia and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. All three productions had been written by Tony Harrison specially for the Northern voice. The part of Hunt / Silenus in Trackers was written specifically for Rutter. He was home. There was no question of anyone moving the action south and him not being in it. The action was moving north and he was right in there.

Trackers gave Rutter the idea for Northern Broadsides. Harrison took fragments of a play by Sophocles and built another play about the discovery of this play by two Oxford professors. There was a one-off performance, the first in any language for 2,500 years, in the ancient stadium at Delphi. (Harrison gave Rutter 20 more lines of verse hours before it started. 'It took me longer to learn the buggers than it did him to write them.')

Two years later they took the production to a wool-combing shed at Salts Mill, three miles north of Bradford. This was Rutter's Damascus. 'It was where the natural voice of the play, written for the Northern voices - me and Jack Shepherd and the team of satyrs - met its natural audience.' The strict metre of rhyming couplets provided a bed-rock for the broad presentational style. 'Just in sheer affinity the roof went off. I just knew I wanted to do more.'

For Rutter the Northern voice offers something special. The verse-speaking skills are still there. 'We're not talking about rough street Hull, or rough Bradford, or everyday naturalistic Manchester here. But we're eschewing this RP diktat that we've all been asked to do up to drama school, and through it, and after. We have short vowels, and heavy, muscular, concrete consonants.' And: 'It's bloody rich.'

He got pounds 15,000 from the City of Hull, which was celebrating the 350th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. He got office space at a nominal rate from one mill-owner, Sir Ernest Hall (at his mill, Dean Clough), free rehearsal space from another Jonathan Silver (at Salts Mill), and 'massive' back-up support from the Bradford Alhambra. He has winning ways.

He didn't employ anyone. 'There were only funds in this very tiny kitty for me.' With Rutter, it's down to essentials. 'Me and my missus and children have to eat.' His American wife, Dr Carol Rutter, lectures at Warwick University, and is the author of Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today. They have two daughters, Bryony and Rowan. (Bryony was conceived in 1981, in the Christmas break Peter Hall gave the Oresteia company.)

Rutter cajoled and hustled and 'interested' people, and got together pounds 110,000. The Mysteries cast had 'Scots in it, Londoners in it, putting on the Northern voice. It was a mixed bag of folk.' But this was different. 'I said, right, you'll have to show me your passport.'

A much-vaunted world tour of Trackers had fallen through. Rutter has the letter from the Sydney theatre company explaining that the reason the trip was cancelled was that there were too many non-performers on the payroll. In fact, they exceeded the number of performers.

Faced with unemployment, Rutter turned his anger into something positive, creating his own theatre company. 'I made this promise to the lads in Trackers that if I could get something on they'd all get first refusal.' Any money he got would be spent on actors and not on non-performers. He was economical, too, with the props. 'I went like a magpie round the mill, saying I'll have that. Three chairs, yeah, they'll do for the tents.' Economical with the lighting. 'Lights up, lights down, that's it.' And economical with the sets. 'The big, simple sweep and white light, like sunlight.' He'd learnt about strong, spare design from Jocelyn Herbert (who had designed The Oresteia and Trackers). 'I had two thousand quid only to put the play on with. That included the hire of the generator.'

Next time we met, in the BBC canteen in early February (Rutter was playing Barabbas in an Easter radio play), the administration was getting him down. Funding groups kept wanting to see his policy statements, budgets, outreach and strategy papers. 'I said to them, my strategy paper is on stage tonight. Go and see it.' The Arts Council told me he was caught on 'a cleft stick. He doesn't quite fit into any category.' (Yes, but wasn't that the point?) Rutter's plans were shrinking.

Over the next few months postcards arrived from Stratford (where he lives), Ohio (where he was working) and Halifax (where the office was). Dashed off in neat, black handwriting, they were peppered with exclamation marks.

Dated 22 February: 'A day of decision - it's one play this summer, and it's Merry Wives. I can't go on grubbing for the necessary money any longer.'

31 March: '(Brian) Glover has a film, so I'm doing Falstaff. Looks like a six-week tour.'

30 April: 'Talk about bureaucracy. Acting and directing are much simpler - oh, for the days when I can afford an administrator. This whole thing may not happen 'cos of pounds 6,000. But the same people who could provide it keep asking me if I've got a cast yet and when they can see a poster and handouts] Mad.'

6 May: 'Still pounds 5,000 short of our target but to hell with it . . . Yorkshire TV and Theakstons (the brewers) have yet to announce sponsorship, so it still could be found.'

7 May: 'At last, a full cast . . . Follow-ups, they say, are more difficult. What really spurs me on tho', is (John) Patten and (David) Pascall (the then chairman of the National Curriculum Council) - the bastards]'

They were rehearsing at Salts Mill, four floors above the Hockney Gallery. 'Insist you come up and have a look.'

THE VILLAGE of Saltaire was built by the Congregationalist

Sir Titus Salt, so there isn't a pub. At seven in the evening the cast were congregating just up the road at the Ring O' Bells. Wednesday is pay-day and the party atmosphere was headed by the Merry Wives (Polly Hemingway and Elizabeth Estensen) and Mistress Quickly (Ishia Bennison). Andy Wear, playing Fenton in Merry Wives, sat in a corner and told me how Rutter had come into the Trackers drawing-room, saying, 'Listen, I've got an idea, and you've all got first shout.' Eight of them took him up on the offer.

Rutter was in ebullient form. This autumn he's doing Kleist's The Broken Jug in a new version by Blake Morrison, literary editor of the Independent on Sunday. Next spring he plans to do the Oresteia at the Brighton Festival. The year after that, it's Antony and Cleopatra. Things were moving fast. The other day he'd attended a theatre conference. 'I'd better watch out,' he said, by way of introduction. 'I've only been doing this a year and I'm already on a panel.'

Next morning he showed me round the large, light wool- combing shed. There was a temporary wooden wall that the caretaker was having taken down. 'No, please,' said Rutter. 'It's going,' said the caretaker. 'I need enough for a doorway,' said Rutter, at his most plaintive. The caretaker relented. Rutter had already worked out the entrance for the Furies in the Oresteia. They were coming on right from the back of the shed, giving them a hundred-yard entrance. (Later he decided to give this entrance to the Fairies in Merry Wives too.)

The company rehearses five floors up, using the longest mill- room in Europe (150m) as its Green Room. Next door is the huge rehearsal room, with pigeons flapping from beam to beam and white paint peeling everywhere. Rutter, of course, wants to do a show up here. There are no warm-ups or trust games or improvs. The props are arriving tomorrow. Today they'll just have to 'Kojak it' (as in Kojak's phrase, 'Assume the position').

It's informal. Rutter stops in the middle of rehearsing a scene to take a call on the mobile phone. When it comes to blocking: 'I'm an old front-cloth ham, but I do know where the audience is.' He paraphrases everything: one scene is 'a pleasant do', another is 'trouble at mill'. When the philandering Falstaff visits Mistress Ford, he's 'going in the back door'. Pragmatism rules too: Falstaff drinks bottled beer with Bardolph and Pistol. 'If Theakstons are going to be giving us five grand, it's going to be Theakstons on the table.'

When Rutter makes a point he cocks his head back and widens his eyes: it's the facial equivalent of an exclamation mark. If Falstaff has an alacrity in sinking, Rutter wants an alacrity in thinking. 'Bang-bang, bang-bang, bang-bang,' he urged his actors, 'all straight lines]' One of them wanted to put in a look. Rutter replied: 'If we have to wait for it, out it goes.'

During the lunch break, in the diner downstairs, Rutter wasn't talking about this production, or the next production, but the one after that. He'd been to see Tony Harrison with his ideas for Antony and Cleopatra and come away with some better ones. There was going to be a blues piano, a Yorkshire Asian cast, and textiles from the mills. This time, he assured me, the barge scene would be 'a proper piss-up'.

'Merry Wives' is at Salts Mill, Bradford (0274 752000) to 26 June; then Hull Barrow-in-Furness, Saltburn, Alnwick, Halifax, Middleham, and (to be confirmed) Warrington and Oldham.

(Photographs omitted)