Preview: King Lear

Unlike some thespians, Barrie Rutter is unfazed about playing King Lear, finds Antonia Charlesworth

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There comes a point in many male stage actors’ career when they reach a certain age and esteem, that they will play King Lear. Ian McKellen dreaded it, Jonathan Pryce put his back out doing it, Edward Petherbridge had a stroke, Timothy West said it was exhausting and Oliver Ford Davies wrote a book about how challenging it is. But Barrie Rutter says that’s a load of indulgent guff – it’s just acting.

“Be careful of those who tell you how emotionally draining it is,” he warns. “There so much of that because it gets championed – I can’t be doing with it.”

Rutter’s down-to-earth attitude is the foundation of Northern Broadsides – the regional theatre company he founded over 20 years ago in Dean Clough Mill, Halifax. His vision, which he credits as his one good idea, was to tackle classic plays with a northern cast and perform them in non-velvet spaces – churches, stables, cattle markets, mills.

Today, with a string of accolades (including an OBE for Rutter himself this year) and a formidable reputation, it remains the only middle-scale national touring theatre company in the north.

“Over the years the big animal grinds some of your edges off,” reflects Rutter. “What with health and safety and cutbacks in the arts you get homogenised a little bit.”

He says it would be pompous of him to consider Northern Broadsides a haven for northern actors – even if it is what he feels in his heart –  but the ethos remains the same – to fight convention and the typecasting of northern actors and give them a real voice. “It’s still important, because it’s ours. I don’t care if people don’t like it – at least they know what they don’t like because they’re given it.”

Rutter first played the mad monarch 16 years ago

In this production, King Lear, in the hands of world-leading director Jonathan Miller, is given a Yorkshire accent – for the second time around. Rutter first played the mad monarch 16 years ago, although he didn’t mean to. “I was too young to play Lear then,” says the actor, who turns 70 next year. “I was supposed to play the Fool but my great friend, the late great Brian Glover, got this brain tumour and, bless him, died. You don’t get another Brian Glover, but I stepped in because the tour was booked.”

One of the Bard’s great tragedies, King Lear is the story of a family at war with itself. Lear, an ageing and deeply flawed individual, wrecks his relationship with his three daughters and, in doing so, loses all he has. Like Lear, Rutter has three daughters, but as well as the parental similarities he recognises something else of himself in the king – human folly. “We are all guilty of it,” he says.

The powerful scenes that depict Lear’s final demise, during the storm on the heath, are ones actors often cite as emotionally and physically draining, but Rutter says it’s not going to ring him out.

“It’s not full blown. It’s a descent into a very old man – he says ‘I’m very old and foolish’. It’s concentration and it’s acting but it’s not bombast, it’s not power. During the storm he’s [Miller] got me being utterly depressed. I don’t take the elements on. I say: ‘Go on! Go on thunder, fucking do it, I don’t care.’

“There’s a lot of guff about how difficult this job is. I’m not saying it’s easy but it’s a pleasure to do. I look forward to doing it because it’s how I’m made.”

He adds with a wicked laugh: “I hope the audience retain their emotional draining long after we do because we take the costume off, wash the face, have a drink and, you know, what’s on telly?”

King Lear is at Hull Truck Theatre, 10-14 March, then touring venues including West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, Liverpool Playhouse, The Lowry, Salford and York International Shakespeare Festival. Buy The Big Issue in the North on 23 March to read our interview with Jonathan Miller


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