Barrie Rutter on why he left Northern Broadsides

Rutter in King Lear in a Northern Broadsides production directed by Jonathan Miller Photo: Nobby Cla

Rutter in King Lear in a Northern Broadsides production directed by Jonathan Miller Photo: Nobby Clark - Credit: ©Nobby Clark Photographer

Barrie Rutter, founder of Northern Broadsides, has been a mainstay of Yorkshire theatre for the last 25 years but now he’s leaving the company. He tells Tony Greenway why.

Rutter as Grandpa Mars Photo: Nobby Clark

Rutter as Grandpa Mars Photo: Nobby Clark - Credit: Archant

My manner is not altogether diplomatic,’ admits Barrie Rutter. ‘But blow that. Diplomacy never got plays on.’ Of course, Rutter doesn’t actually use the word ‘blow’. He chooses something slightly more Chaucerian. But this is a family publication, and you can probably guess what he did say. That’s Rutter to a T, though, straight to the point and unafraid to speak his mind. It’s what has made his theatre company, Halifax-based Northern Broadsides, a unique part of Yorkshire’s theatrical landscape, so real and riveting to watch. It’s captured audience imaginations, won the approval of critics and, along the way, picked up some big name patrons including Tom Courtenay, Stephanie Cole, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaska and Lenny Henry (who appeared in the title role of Broadsides’ much-talked about Othello in 2009). There isn’t space to list all the awards that Broadsides has won but, suffice to say, four years ago, Rutter went to the Palace to collect an OBE for services to drama. He’s practically the walking definition of the now seldom seen theatrical ‘actor-manager’.

When he began the company in 1992, Rutter’s mission was to eschew ‘RP’ – the tradition for actors to speak their lines in crisp, southern-inflected Received Pronunciation – and, instead, deliver stories to northern audiences in full-blooded, unapologetic northern dialect. He also wanted to put on plays (mainly but not exclusively Shakespeare) in non-traditional spaces: boat sheds, cattle markets and transport museums, for instance.

Broadsides stood out from the crowd because it offered ‘a classically written play performed with lots of muscularity and gusto, meeting its natural audience in a space that wasn’t a natural theatre’. That idea has had to adapt over the last quarter of a century. ‘The world’s changed – so, of course, we’ve changed,’ he agrees.

‘But that year, we did it. We bloody well did it. And actors, audiences, the Arts Council and critics all welcomed it. And so it was obvious we had to do another one. And another one. And that’s lasted for (more than) 25 years.’

So what distinguishes a Broadsides production from shows by other companies? ‘Well, maybe not a lot,’ he muses, ‘except that it’s always got great alacrity, great attack, you see the money in the cast numbers which is still a great calling card for Broadsides because we put as many actors on stage as we can. Now, if you don’t like us, at least you know why. But there’s nothing wishy-washy about us.’

Last year, however, Rutter shocked the theatrical establishment by announcing that, after all this time, he was resigning as Broadsides’ artistic director. He officially leaves this month. The reason, he said in a statement, was because he had ‘failed to lead the team in securing a long overdue increase in Arts Council funding’ and that ‘after 25 wonderful years it is the right time for me to stand down’. He also wrote an article about his decision in The Stage, noting that the meeting with the Arts Council to discuss a funding increase was ‘fractious’.

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He doesn’t know if cuts will have to be made to Broadsides because he hasn’t been at the latest board meetings; although freeing up his salary should help ease some of the financial burden of putting on a stage production. ‘All I do know is that the board and remaining staff are taking Broadsides onwards,’ he says. ‘I wish them well with a great deal of bon voyage.’ Rutter doesn’t know who’ll be taking over as artistic director, either. ‘There’s no legal requirement to appoint a new artistic director; so the ship is going to sail as it is at the moment.’

One thing seems certain: Rutter won’t be back at Broadsides as a consultant, director or even jobbing actor. ‘No, I won’t,’ he says, ‘not for the foreseeable future, because it doesn’t need me.’ We talk in February when Rutter is still at the helm and directing and appearing in his final Broadsides production, The Captive Queen, at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. ‘The thing is, I’m the elephant in the room because I haven’t gone yet,’ he tells me. ‘But after March, everyone connected with Broadsides needs a breathing space without me to see what they want to do and what their plans are. They deserve that and I’ve got a freelance career to be getting on with. I need to earn a living. It’s as simple as that.’ So aptly, on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd, he’ll start the next act in his life by directing Two Noble Kinsmen, a play attributed to Shakespeare and John Fletcher, also at The Globe (which opens on May 25th).

Rutter, like Sir Alan Ayckbourn and John Godber, has been a respected pillar of Yorkshire theatre. But are those pillars wobbling a bit? Some years back, Ayckbourn left his role as artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (although he still puts his plays on there), and Godber – long associated with Hull Truck – has operated out of Wakefield since 2011. How are we to view the current state of the Yorkshire stage? ‘I think it’s in a very healthy place,’ says Rutter. ‘Don’t forget, in the case of me and Alan, you’re talking about two old men but we’re still at the top of our creativity. John has his own company and he’s thriving, too. We’re not dead. We haven’t gone. We’ve just changed the way our creativity comes out. Now, I’m slightly the odd man out, because I’m not a writer like they are. I’ve got to get out there now and forage under my own overt performances. I don’t know. I might fail. I might become skint and penniless and decrepit.’

When he was a boy, Rutter, the son of a Hull fishworker, was given a part in the school play by an English teacher who thought he had ‘the gob for it’. He discovered he loved the stage. He still does, enjoying the fact that in the theatre, unlike in film and TV, the storytelling process is linear. ‘On a film or a TV show you can do the last scene first,’ he says. ‘And, you know, also, I tend to be a big performer on stage. It suits me better than the screen, I think.’ Screen acting is an honourable profession, but a different discipline. ‘Totally. On TV, you have to know the camera is up your nose whereas in the theatre the furthest person can be 70ft away. You have to play to them. You have to perform to them. I like that. I’d have to do a lot more screen work to get better at it.’

Which isn’t to say that Rutter is a complete stranger to TV. He’s featured in episodes of The Liver Birds, Dixon of Dock Green, Queenie’s Castle (with Diana Dors), Minder, Boon, a nineties small screen remake of The Saint, Kavanagh QC, the movie version of Porridge and – like most actors – has made obligatory appearances in Casualty and The Bill. He didn’t do these roles to fund his theatre habit, he insists. ‘No, no. I was simply available. For the last 25 years, apart from doing Fat Friends – the Kay Mellor series in the early 2000s – I’ve never been available. So the odd bits and bobs that came my way, I took. And my agent was very happy for me to do that.’

Blunt-speaking Rutter doesn’t seem like an emotional man. Will he be upset when the curtain comes down and he finally leaves the Broadsides building for good? ‘At this point I’m still fully involved with it,’ he says. ‘Come the end of March, though, when it’s all over, I don’t know. It’s not something that need necessarily be pessimistic. It isn’t emotional, yet, because I’ve still got work to do. And I can’t let it be emotional. It would be unfair to me and to my colleagues, and to my present cast in London.’ But when there are ‘leaving dos and all that’... well... time will tell, he says. ‘What happens, happens.’

And although he’s leaving Broadsides, he’s not moving out of the county. ‘I’m a Yorkshireman,’ he says simply. And anyway, even if he did want to move, he thinks he’s priced himself out of the property market. ‘Where else can you sell a house in Halifax and move to a different area without it costing a lot of money? You can’t. That’s the price of property. My little house – which is very nice and I like it enormously – would be what, a million-and-a-half down in London? I wouldn’t be able to sell it for more than £250,000. And I don’t want to sell it.’

Rutter is 71 and has his health problems although, from where I’m sitting, there’s no dimming of his energy. ‘I’ve got prostate cancer, but it’s a slow one. So I’m well-monitored on that. And I’ve got a heart stent, but you’re cured the next day once you’ve got one of those. But now I’ve got bloomin’ water on the knee’ (he doesn’t say ‘bloomin’) ‘which is as painful as old Harry’ (he doesn’t say ‘Harry’). ‘It’s like having a cannonball in your knee.’

Even so, these problems aside, he has a brilliant plan for his future. ‘I’m going to keep on going,’ he says brightly. ‘Die with me boots on. I started Broadsides on my own volition – and I’ll go out on my own volition.’