After his agent suggested he set up his own theatre company, actor Barrie Rutter OBE decided to do just that. The multi-award-winning Northern Broadsides, based in Halifax, has built an impressive repertoire of Shakespeare, European and English classic plays. The company doesn’t stray from its roots, as their distinctive approach celebrates the muscularity and vigour of the northern voice. Actors perform in their natural voices and regional accents, breaking the southern domination and the tired paradigm that says such works are for the elite.

Since its humble beginnings of surviving on a shoestring budget, Northern Broadsides has become a recipient of Arts Council England funding and continue to make successful and refreshing productions of classical texts that are accessible to all. The driving force behind all of this is Rutter, with his passion for language and the northern voice.

I spoke with Rutter to find out more about the company’s upcoming tour of The Merry Wives.

What should we expect from The Merry Wives?

A fond farcical, big cast show, which you rarely see done outside the RSC or The Globe. It is a wonderful explosion of language, which is not to be taken too seriously. The act of putting it on, however, was serious. Merry Wives is one of the comedies and we’ve had a lot of fun putting it on, but with a cast of 16 there is a lot to rein in and focus on. Having fun is a serious business.

What is it about Shakespeare’s work that keeps you wanting to revisit his plays?

It is food, isn’t it? The language is food. It all depends on personal tastes and Shakespeare is something that particularly appeals to my palate and my heartbeat. I have a love for language and how words are collected and put together. There is a satisfaction you get when finishing a good meal and that’s the same satisfaction I find with this type of work.

How do you find directing and starring in a production?

Well, it’s not that difficult. I’ve been doing it 24 years. When the day comes when I feel it is too much to do both then I will know. Not to sound egotistic, but our audiences like me being on stage, so as long as I am able to I will continue to do it. I love what I do.

This year was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Will the company do anything to commemorate?

Last year we did a tragedy and this year we are doing a comedy. We are at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham on 23 April, the date Shakespeare died, and after the matinee performance we are going to have a special dinner with the team. We are particularly having venison pie as it is mentioned in Merry Wives, as a way to commemorate.

Do you worry that the youth of today are losing touch with Shakespeare plays?

I don’t know enough about it. I don’t know how much contact they have with it nowadays, within school curriculum or whatever else. But as far I’m concerned, there is always a new audience out there. Each generation will discover things, in their own time and in their own way, and that’s one of, if not the, joy to keep providing it. A lot of the time we don’t realise how amazing and influential Shakespeare is, but here we are still performing it 400 years later. We don’t appreciate it.

Northern Broadsides have fortunately been a key recipient of funding from the Arts Council, which is fantastic. However, the ACE still seems to favour the south, particularly the capital. Do you think this in an accurate comment?

It is a fair comment, although what aggravates me more are those who are critical who are not a part of it. I am sometimes critical of the decisions made by the Council, but I reserve the right to be. Although I can be critical, I do have a lot of praise for what they do. We have been fortunate to receive and we do what we can on that funding. For Merry Wives, the cast has no amateurs. They are all working professions, no profit share agreements. We’ve covered all travelling expenses and everyone is being paid. We are able to tour with a cast of 16 and four crew members, with the ability to pay everyone fairly, and that certainly wouldn’t be possible without the help of that funding.

You have had quite an illustrious career and you received an OBE last year. Was this a highlight for you?

I don’t think it was the highlight, although I am very proud to have been rewarded with it. It is an acknowledgement that’s around. They are there to get got. For one, you don’t know you’re getting it until you get the letter. At first, I thought it was junk mail because I didn’t have my glasses on. A highlight for me would be reaching 69, I suppose, but highlights are different things. They are the disappearing things – a particularly good meal, a night in the theatre, a setting, your daughter’s wedding. I don’t have a particular real favourite. You can’t live looking for these highlight moments. You have to just keep going and enjoy the experiences for what they are and when they happen.

northernbroadsides.co.uk

Kate Morris