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Deceptively simple?

Written by: on March 2, 2010

The combination of a university literature degree with involvement in the university’s dramatic societies has taught me to regard theatre with an academic, interrogative and literary focus. It was therefore refreshing to speak to Barrie Rutter of Northern Broadsides theatre company, who shuns the idea of a theatre in which ideas are ineffectively or irrelevantly affixed to texts – he calls this “blu-tack” theatre. Rather, he favours a performance which is “deceptively simple” and which lets the words of classical texts speak to the audience, uninhibited by cleverness.

Born the son of a fish-worker in immediately post-war Hull, Rutter found himself on stage after a schoolteacher’s suggestion that he had “the gob for it”. Such useful career guidance led him into the profession, through which he later gained work as an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. His foundation of Northern Broadsides in 1992, however, signalled a marrying of the experience gained from these two English institutions with his modest origins: he describes the artistic concept of the company as, “Northern voices, doing classical work in non-velvet spaces”.

Aside from being the company philosophy, this credo also seems to serve as a key to Rutter himself. He has a memorable, bold northern voice, a clear knowledge of and passion for the classics, and is non-velvet in his lack of polished pretence. He is energetic and emphatic in unpacking his theatrical manifesto, unafraid of dismissing outright the popularised naturalistic styles of contemporary stage and film performance. Rather, he strives to let the “muscular poetry” of classical texts speak for itself and proudly proclaims, “I never talk character”.

He cites Blake Morisson’s encouragement to Tom Paulin upon entering into a joint project with Rutter (Morrison, the translator for previous Northern Broadsides productions; Paulin, the translator of the company’s new production of _Medea_): “Blake said to Tom, ‘You’ll like working with Rutter as he doesn’t let acting get in the way of the words’.”

It is the words of these texts that Rutter holds as the holiest aspect of performance of the classics. This is clear when he talks of returning Paulin’s work-in-progress translation to him with a request for more monosyllables. In plays in which all dramatic action happens offstage and is given a form only through reported speech, it is monosyllables that he believes are crucial to generating dramatic impact. He illustrates the rhythmic power of monosyllabic verse through a variety of physical gestures and talks of the actor’s task in harnessing the power of the “piston bounce” to propel the verse and the story without the complicated baggage of internal character psychology. He proclaims, “the psychology is verbal”.

In opposing psychology-driven, naturalistic acting and his notion of so-called “blu-tack” theatre, his project as founder and Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides, is to render the classics accessible to all audiences. Talking a few hours before curtain up on the second night of this production, he insists, “It’s a fucking open picnic! It’s a pantomime!” Given the tragic content of Medea, the assertion that it is a pantomime is a little unusual but it is perhaps specifically the pantomime’s universal accessibility which he hopes to achieve in this production.

Northern Broadsides’ production of Medea premiered on February 2nd at the Oxford Playhouse and tours the country until April 17th including five performances at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.

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