As anyone knows who speaks with the critics or has tried their hand at writing theatrical notices, it is hard to write overnight reviews of productions. They are quick, inexpensive and short, and the writer has to have performance knowledge, curiosity and writing style – qualities which are hard to master and sometimes conspicuously lacking. When we can get them, national newspaper reviews often provoke heated debate in the dressing rooms, as when a recent notice for Romeo and Juliet included unfavourable comment about Northern Broadsides Theatre Company’s use of clogging. For many theatre directors and managers, the critics are thought to exert an immediate influence on the box-office, out of all proportion to their brevity and merit. The newspaper review is usually the weightiest commentary received by a theatre company. By comparison, books on the theatre are slow, expensive and long, whilst authors often prefer to investigate national theatres, directors on the worldwide festival circuit, or on Broadway and London’s West End.
Criticism for an ‘out-of-London’ theatre company is rare in book form. Hence, it has been good to read substantial criticism about Northern Broadsides in some recent books: by Dave Russell in Looking North: Northern England and the national imagination, and by Carol Chillington Rutter in Shakespeare Survey 56: ‘Northern Broadsides at Work and Play’. Most recently, the 600 page Routledge Companion to Directors’ Shakespeare was published in March 2008, albeit at a hefty £85, or by e-book subscription. Editor John Russell Brown has chosen 31 directors from the past two centuries. Each entry describes the director’s theatrical vision and methods of rehearsal and production. They include luminaries such as Ingmar Bergman, Peter Brook, Harley Granville Barker, Tyrone Guthrie, Peter Hall, Henry Irving, Joan Littlewood, Joseph Papp, Max Reinhardt, Peter Stein, Orson Welles, Franco Zeffirelli … and Barrie Rutter.
Contributor Christian M Billing, of Hull University, describes the company’s use of the northern-English dance-form of clogging as having great effect in nearly all of the company’s Shakespeare productions, starting with rehearsal workouts of intense physical preparation, leading to complex performance representation of the Battle of Bosworth in Richard III, or underscoring subtle verse soliloquies in other plays, often ‘creating a percussive chiamus that emulates the spoken patterns of Shakespeare’s lines’. He describes the actors’ physical effort to create these dance rhythms as seamlessly linked to the music played in each production, assisting an astounding articulation of the poetry. It was, he writes, ‘not for nothing that Renaissance theatre incorporated numerous dances and ended its performances with jigs – or that Athenian tragedy was based around the stylised dancing of a well-trained chorus’.
Billing charts the company’s progress from 1992 to 2007, with remarkable insights into the rigorous rehearsal and production of nineteen Shakespeares, drawn from every genre from Richard III to The Tempest. He describes how they have developed over the years, whilst being rooted in two key elements: music and geometry. The loyal Friends of Northern Broadsides will already know how actors’ linguistic precision in their northern voice makes the rhythms, pace, imagery and meanings of the plays come to life through ‘elevated performances’ of ‘philosophical substance’ and ‘level-headed clarity’, but his analysis will add immensely to our theatregoing pleasure.
Billing’s essay was researched from seeing many of the productions, three interviews with Barrie Rutter and Conrad Nelson in 2006, and use of the company’s scrapbooks and records. His writing also points to the value of Northern Broadsides’ archive for future scholarship. Now deposited at the University of Warwick Capital Centre (for Creativity and Performance in Teaching and Learning), the company will, via the archive that is now being catalogued, collaborate on projects that bring together students, actors, drama academics and theatre makers to share practice, working on texts and productions to perform new writing, and to devise practitioner-led research schemes. Hopefully, the Capital Centre and archive will also attract aspiring theatre and clogging critics.
This review appeared in the Friends of Northern Broadsides Newsletter, Issue No 15, June 2008. Barrie Rutter's 2009 Shakespeare production was Othello; following a sold-right-out tour, with Lenny Henry as Othello, there was a successful season at Trafalgar Studios, London. The production was also broadcast on BBC Radio Drama.
For 2010, the first productions have been Tom Paulin's new adaptation of Euripedes' Medea, opening at Oxford Playhouse on 2 February, and Mike Poulton's adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme from 26 February.
When studying Henry IV Part One for GCE O Level, I went to see a National Youth Theatre production and became stagestruck; Barrie Rutter was playing Falstaff - he must have been about 20! Then I saw him in two northern working class plays, Peter Terson's Zigger Zagger and The Apprentices. Many years later, I enjoyed Northern Broadsides' first production, Richard III, given in an abbatoir at Barrow-in-Furness in 1992. Since then the company's inspiring acting always rejuvenates one's passion for good theatre. It was my good fortune to have programmed Northern Broadsides in several visits when I was at Blackpool Grand Theatre, and it's an even greater privilege to be a director of the Company today.