The Northern Broadsides are on day five of rehearsals for their upcoming run of The Merry Wives when I speak to Barrie Rutter, the Halifax-based artistic director of the company, and director and leading actor of this production. In short, the company, who we saw and reviewed in a lively, charming performance of The Winter’s Tale last year, are best-known for their ‘Northern voice’, and feature strong ensembles with a variety of regional accents that invigorate the language of Shakespeare.
When I ask Rutter, who was born-and-raised in Hull, what we might expect the Northern ‘voice’ to bring to the play he responds, “The same as it’s always done. It has an alacrity and a music – a music of speech if you like. I don’t mean literally singing notes, but the rhythms of speech. And this play where you’ve got a Welshman, a Frenchman…all those rhythms are great fun.”
In The Merry Wives so much of its comedy rests on speech – with the Welshman and the Frenchman Rutter mentioned often being the butt of the jokes. With a text that deals so playfully, and perhaps at times a little scornfully, with accents, it seems like a natural choice for the company. But after nearly 25 years of performing (the Northern Broadsides will turn 25 next year), the company has, of course, performed everything from comic farce to serious tragedy, including a production of King Lear last year under the direction of Jonathan Miller and with Rutter starring as Lear. “I didn’t set out to change the world,” says Rutter, “I set out to do what excited me and invite colleagues along – and audiences. And something seems to have worked!”
Rutter’s emphasis is not so much on re-imagining texts to suit a Northern voice, but instead to play with the language and the “rhythms of speech” whilst still giving the audience just what it’s there to see – a Shakespeare play. “We don’t change the text, I edit, but nothing changes except a little setting,” Rutter explains, “Some Shakespeares now are absolutely radical and if they run with that they just have to come off and be successful…It’s alright having a radical approach, but you’ve still gotta speak the bloody stuff.”
The company are still stylizing The Merry Wives for a fresh, Northern theme by setting it in the 1920s in what Rutter describes as a “Yorkshire country club.” Rutter will star as Falstaff, the third time he has played the role, and the cast will include Gerard McDermott, Roy North, Helen Sheals, Nicola Sanderson and Ben Burman. We’ll also see design from Lis Evans, lighting from Adam Foley and more musical composition from Conrad Nelson – who directed and composed music for last year’s The Winter’s Tale. I asked Rutter if we can expect a similar use of the multi-talented musicality of the cast that we saw in The Winter’s Tale, to which he responds, “Yes. There’s not as much opportunity in Merry Wives. But yes there will be some. We often do that where we can as everybody plays.”
The Merry Wives will begin its run at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme on Friday 5th February. This will be the Northern Broadsides’ seventh co-production with the New Vic. The run will then continue in the Viaduct Theatre at the Dean Clough Mill in Halifax, home to the Northern Broadsides and Rutter. The buildings at Dean Clough once made up one of the largest carpet factories in the world in the mid-1800s and is now host to multiple arts venues and companies. The Viaduct theatre is an underground, stone viaduct and is sure to make an atmospheric setting for The Merry Wives when it arrives on March 1st. Other Yorkshire venues will include the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, the Hull Truck Theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and the York Theatre Royal.
You can see a full list of venues with details for purchasing tickets here.