‘Twenty-five years – kiss my arse’

Barrie Rutter promised to step down from Northern Broadsides if it didn’t get more Arts Council funding and now the actor and director is being true to his words

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Seated on the café terrace of Halifax’s Dean Clough mills, determinedly tucking into a jacket potato in the midday sunshine, Barrie Rutter is outlining his thoughts on the rehearsal process in the same blunt, no-nonsense style that characterises his theatre productions.

“I like first days. It’s very sociable. We meet each other, have a read through and that’s all I like to do. The next day it’s straight into act one, scene one. I don’t sit around a table and discuss. We haven’t got the time. We haven’t got the money and I haven’t got the patience. I remember how impatient I was [as an actor] in the past when you would sit around a bloody table for two weeks discussing every fucking comma and nuance.”

He continues, words tumbling out his mouth in his thick Yorkshire accent. “The other thing about those situations is that they can be dominated by people who have the least to say. There’s an assumed scholarship towards directors and often they talk bollocks, but they like the sound of their own voice. I quite like the sound of my own voice, but I don’t express it around a table. I do it on the floor.”

The Hull-born actor and director is two and a half days into rehearsals for For Love Or Money, his last touring production with Northern Broadsides, the pioneering theatre company he set up in 1992 in a two-fingered gesture to the southern hold over Shakespeare and classical drama.

Northern Broadsides has staged over 70 often acclaimed, always distinctive productions, including the epic nine hour-long Wars of the Roses cycle, award-winning Othello starring Lenny Henry and this year’s Richard III, which cast disabled actor Mat Fraser in the title role and was part of Hull’s Capital of Culture programme. The company’s founding ethos was “Northern voices, doing classical work in non-velvet spaces”, with its motto referencing the use of simple set design: “Maximum impact – minimum paraphernalia.”

“It was a revolutionary idea. Nobody had done it before,” says Rutter, recalling the condescending attitude of several critics during early tours. “Coronation Street doing Shakespeare was what one said. Karaoke Shakespeare was another.”

Such voices were in the minority, however, the vast majority of people were supportive of what Northern Broadsides was achieving on a shoestring. “In the early years, there were a couple of times when I only took money when there was something left, but the momentum had started,” says Rutter, proudly noting: “If you’re doing something for 25 years then something is going right.

“Look at me. I’m 71 next birthday and I’ve still got all my energy, all my creativity, all my ideas. It has not taken its toll in any way. It’s a pleasure to do.”

Nevertheless, last year Rutter said he would quit if the company did not receive an increase in its Arts Council funding of £255,000 a year. True to his word, in July he said that he would be stepping down next April after his application for more cash to pay actors and crew was rejected.

“I said we needed more money. I failed to get it. Fine. Twenty-five years – kiss my arse. Good night, Vienna. Our Arts Council representative said: ‘You called the Arts Council’s bluff and they’ve called it back.’”

Although he claims to be a “great supporter of the Arts Council,” part of Rutter’s grievance lies with its online funding application process, or “stupid fucking cyber crap”, as he dismisses it. “Apparently it’s saved the Arts Council a million quid. Well, it’s created a million problems. It’s awful and part of that awfulness is that it wouldn’t let me make a personal statement on diversity.

Barrie Rutter

“This company was born of diversity – diversity of sound, diversity of attitude, of employment, of geography. We’re a tested company with a proven track record asking for £400,000 and yet they give £2 million to a brand new untested company [Emma Rice’s Wise Children]. It’s very hard to understand. It’s also who you know and, by the way, your northern breath stinks. You can’t help but have that attitude.”

Does he believe that north-south bias still exists? “Yeah,” he snaps. “If it isn’t towards the north, it is towards me, because I’ve always been a maverick.”

Born in 1946 and raised in Hull, where his father worked on the docks and his mother resides to this day, Rutter’s love for drama began when his English teacher frogmarched him to join the school play where he could put his “big gob” to better use. After leaving school, he spent several years in the National Youth Theatre before touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company and joining the National Theatre in 1980. It was there that Rutter established a formative partnership with Leeds-born playwright Tony Harrison, who wrote the part of Silenus in The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus for the actor. When a worldwide tour of that play was cancelled, coupled with the eleventh hour cancellation of a TV series that Rutter was signed up to star in, Northern Broadsides was born.

“I’ve said this before, but I never knew there would be a year two, never mind 25,” says Rutter, whose TV and film credits include 1979’s Porridge movie, 1970s TV sitcom Queenie’s Castle and, more recently, Kay Mellor’s Fat Friends.

In 1995 he opened the Viaduct, a subterranean performance and rehearsal space beneath Dean Clough mills in the heart of Halifax, which has been Northern Broadsides’ home ever since. “Wearing the responsibility of what you set out to do and seeing it grow, I’m happy to do. It’s a very nice jacket. It doesn’t always fit, but it’s fitted more times than it hasn’t,” says the outgoing artistic director, who was awarded the OBE for services to drama in 2015.

“Barrie is a law unto himself. A huge character and a huge presence,” says poet and author Blake Morrison, who has often collaborated with him and wrote For Love Or Money, an adaptation of Alain-René Lesage’s 18th century comedy Turcaret, transposed to a small Yorkshire town on the eve of the 1929 stock market crash.

Harrison credits Northern Broadsides with bringing “classical theatre into places where people weren’t used to seeing it” and proving there was a demand for it. “What Barrie was aiming at, and what he’s continued to bring, is this belief that serious theatre and serious language can find audiences of all kinds of backgrounds, all reading and cultural attainment,” says Harrison, calling For Love Or Money a timeless and entertaining satire about self-interest.

“Mainly it’s fun. There’s no great philosophy,” adds Rutter, who follows the play by directing and starring in a Shakespeare’s Globe-Northern Broadsides co-production of The Captive Queen at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. After that, his diary is blank.

“I don’t have any plans but I feel up at the moment because I’ve got work to do. It may hit me in a different way in March when I’ve got three weeks to clean my desk. I’m just keeping busy till then. I’m buoyant. Northern Broadsides is carrying on and I wish them well.

“The new team need their own space. They don’t want me hanging around. Also I might not approve of what they are doing. So it has to be a guillotine. March 31 – off. I’ll leave with a lot of artistic cholesterol because I’m not short of ideas. Whether I can get them out, I don’t know. How attractive am I at 71? It remains to be seen. But I can’t be downbeat about it. I’ve got to earn a living. We’ll see what happens.”

For Love Or Money is at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, 15-23 Sept, before touring. Barrie Rutter appears at Ilkley Literature Festival on 15 Oct (ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk)

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