Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor have had a make-over and are now a bunch of Yorkshire lasses, in Northern Broadsides’ new production of the 400-year-old comedy.
Dropping Windsor from the title, director Barrie Rutter has given the play a distinctive Northern voice and a 1920s setting. But, as always with this company’s work, it remains faithful to the language of The Bard, even if the place names have been changed and the ‘fat woman of Brentford’ has become the ‘fat woman of Ilkley’.
Northern Broadsides, founded in 1992 and based in the Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax, enjoys a huge reputation for quality productions delivered with a Northern twist.
The company never shies away from the difficulties of staging Shakespeare or other classics. Last year, for example, its actors tackled both King Lear and The Winter’s Tale.
The spring production of The Merry Wives, which began in February at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme (Broadsides and the New Vic are partners in this venture), arrives at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield on Wednesday, May 4, for four nights. It has been playing to rave reviews.
Barrie, who is both directing and taking the lead role of Sir John Falstaff, says he is phenomenally grateful to the company’s loyal audiences in the North.
“It’s one of the most satisfying things,” he added. “In this area we have our own faithful audience in Halifax where we are based and then just six miles away we have a faithful audience in Huddersfield. And some people come to see us in both venues.”
Although one of the region’s most experienced actors with an OBE for services to drama, Barrie has never played the role of Falstaff before. Critics have already noted that it could have been tailor-made for him.
And it’s one that he’s enjoying immensely, even if a comedy role comes with certain risks.
He said: “Falstaff is a fun, delusional character who thinks he can woo a younger generation of women and get their family money. The thing about comedy is that you get an immediate feedback and it’s very pleasurable to hear other people’s pleasure.
“But comedy is also very elusive. One night can be a belter and the next you get nothing, and yet the performance was the same. It’s like trying to juggle sand.”
The Merry Wives is a collaborative work, one of seven that Broadsides has been involved with over the years. As Barrie explained: “At this time of year, to rehearse down in the Viaduct here (Dean Clough) is simply too cold. So we used the Old Vic premises in Newcastle before going on tour.”
But he’s hoping that a recently-announced small capital grant from Arts Council England to develop facilities for both performers and audiences at their home base will improve matters.
He said: “We’re doing our place up, so next year we might have a lovely warm environment in which to rehearse.”
As with all Broadsides’ productions, the focus is very much on the acting and language. Barrie has chosen a minimalist, ‘warm’, 1920s setting and costumes - for practical and economical reasons.
“I didn’t want to be traditional,” he explained. “We don’t have the staff to look after the costumes. When you see Merry Wives performed traditionally the women look as fat as him (Falstaff) in their Farthingales. And the 1920s is a fun time to set it in.
“We can’t carry a complicated set around with us and there’s the cost of maintaining it. We have 16 actors on stage and a full crew and that’s where we put our resources.”
It’s fitting that Northern Broadsides should celebrate one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies in the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. The play, first published in 1602, revisits the popular character of Falstaff, who is now past his prime but still bent on seduction.
However, his plan to extract cash from two wealthy wives backfires when they discover what he’s up to. It’s a work that has strong elements of farce and slapstick along with verbal fun and colourful characters.
Starring alongside Barrie is a cast of hugely-experienced actors and the show has original music by Conrad Nelson.
Tickets for the LBT run are £10 to £19 from www.thelbt.org.uk or 01484 430528.
There is a matinee on Saturday, May 7, at 2.30pm. All other shows start at 7.30pm.