The Merry Wives is a Shakespearean comedy following Falstaff (played by Barrie Rutter OBE) in his quest to seduce two wealthy wives; they become aware of his intentions and exact an embarrassing plan against him. Shakespeare’s original play was set in Windsor, yet Rutter (being the lead actor and director) made the decision to move the play away from the southern, Elizabethan setting and into 1920s northern England. This move was “not a difficult piece of editing” for Barrie, as “the river Thames just becomes the river, Eton becomes Skipton” and so forth. He also posed the question “who the hell wants to do a sixteenth century Windsor accent?” answering for himself that “it’s not what we are,” before suggesting that “the people of York and Halifax” have no concern for Windsor anyway.
Barrie Rutter is the founder and creative director of Northern Broadsides and was appointed an OBE last year for his services to drama, alongside other respectable achievements such as Creative Briton 2000, Best New Play UK, Sam Wanamaker Award and many more.
Rutter has previously been reported by The British Theatre Guide as saying that he hates political correctness: when asked if the jokes about the Welsh and the French in Merry Wives were an issue in terms of being PC, he said “if it is I couldn’t give a monkey’s! Shakespeare is having his joke; I don’t want to censor the past in that way.” He also backed up his point with the fact that “Shakespeare has a go at the English in The Comedy of Errors” and that these kinds of jokes were “wonderfully irreverent… of course he is writing for a different time, but if we take that colour out of everyday life then it would be a dull place – and it’s getting that way.”
Another aspect of his extremely successful career relies on the fact that Northern Broadsides has “always put the money on the stage. We’ve always done that.” And this, he says, is why there are sixteen actors on stage for the current production of Merry Wives: “outside of the bigger, funded companies. Where do you see sixteen actors on stage now?”
Having simultaneously being an actor and a director for 24 years, Barrie confidently tells me “it’s not that difficult.” He then reveals, without hesitation, that the one thing he has learned from his extensive experience is to “never second guess your audience. They’re your best friends; but trying to second guess them is like trying to juggle sand. They can be the most mysterious friends in a room that you’ve got – and then the most sensational.”
"Never second guess your audience. They’re your best friends; but trying to second guess them is like trying to juggle sand."
His philosophy of characterisation is also insightful. He explains that “nobody’s interested in me becoming anyone” and that “I don’t want to become anybody. I have a wish that audiences believe that I have become that character; that’s the skill and craft of acting, directing and the theatre.”
He also shared an experience of Merry Wives from India in 1993 when the “educated, young Indian ladies made it their own.” He explains how the opening scene is essentially a conversation about forced marriage and, since this was a key issue for that particular audience, they “took that… and ran with it” as a forced marriage play. When the play comes to York he believes that, again, “people will take it as they find it. There are things in there for everybody – it’s beautifully shared.” He also performed Merry Wives in 2001 but says it’s a “good company play [and] that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it again.”
For those contemplating attending his upcoming productions in York; or, even more broadly, for those who don’t know where to start with Shakespearean theatre, he suggests you “come along, come along – if you think you don’t like Shakespeare, we’re the perfect company to change that” because of the “sheer clarity of production, of story telling, of involvement –and sheer relish of performance.”
But don’t take his word for it: he reminisced on one man in Scarborough who said “I’ve laughed at this play many a time – but I’ve never belly-laughed until now!”
So, if you want to get into Shakespeare, see an award-winning director and team of actors in action – or just want a real belly-laugh – then the York Theatre Royal from Tuesday the 17th and Saturday the 21st is the place to be.
Main House, York Theatre Royal,17-21 May. Ticket prices: £10- £29.