Actor, musician and director, Conrad Nelson has been associated with Halifax based theatre company, Northern Broadsides for over 20 years. The Company, founded by acting legend and professional northerner, Barrie Rutter, is a unique theatre company with a truly authentic northern voice. Its work is characterised by a high degree of theatrical inventiveness and robust performances from Northern actors who are encouraged to use their natural speaking voices.
In the year 2000, Nelson memorably played Benedick in Northern Broadsides’ production of Much Ado About Nothing, opposite his now wife, the actress and award-winning playwright, Deborah McAndrew. He has since directed many productions for the Company including Cyrano de Bergerac, Hamlet, A Government Inspector and most recently They Don’t Pay We Won’t Pay. In addition to working extensively with Northern Broadsides, Nelson is also the co-artistic director of Claybody Theatre and has worked as a director and composer for the New Vic Theatre, Harrogate Theatres and West End producer, Sonia Friedman.
When Rutter left the Company in 2017, Nelson took over as interim Artistic Director, a role that he will soon be relinquishing. As he prepares to open Northern Broadsides’ new production of Much Ado About Nothing at the New Vic Theatre in Stoke, Nelson talks about his special relationship with the Company, mixing with Hollywood A-listers and what audiences can look forward to when they see the play in either Stoke or when it is on tour.
Hi Conrad, You’ve been with Northern Broadsides for over 26 years, why have you stayed with the Company so long and what have you learnt in this time?
I graduated in 1986 with a degree from what was then Leicester Polytechnic. At that time drama schools weren’t accredited, and a Performance Arts degree bridged the expectation of academic success and my own growing certainty that I wanted to look for a career in The Arts. My career took off after answering the call for an open audition for a new musical called Street Angels written by Ray Shell and performed at The Half Moon Theatre. That job led to an agent and a series of other work including an interview at The National Theatre for a new piece by Tony Harrison.
The foundations for that piece (Tracker of Oxyrhynchus) was inspired by fragments of a lost Sophocles satyr play found in the Egyptian desert sands. The cast was a bunch of Northern blokes who hijacked the country’s premier stage like a victorious rugby league team at a difficult away fixture. In the play, classicism met the northern voice in a thrilling linguistic and visual spectacle. At its heart lay the debate of high art and low art and who should be able to appropriate it.
Members of that Trackers company formed a major part of Broadsides when Barrie founded the company back in 1992. 27 years on I’ve learnt that the appropriation of culture rages on and it’s still a battle worth fighting for.
How would you describe Northern Broadsides’ distinctive performance style?
Bold, imaginative, musical, witty and honest. I dispute those who think that Broadsides is a byword for drama done with broad strokes. Anyone who experiences our rehearsal room will testify to the amount of detailed work that goes into the process.
In Kenneth Branagh’s popular film version of Much Ado About Nothing, you played Hugh Oatcake one of the Watchman. What was it like working on a film version of the play and acting alongside Hollywood A-listers Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton and Denzil Washington?
I loved the Much Ado experience and have the utmost respect for Kenneth Branagh. I think we were all excited to be working alongside Hollywood A-listers, but Ken had the wit and foresight to prep the scenes of the film before shooting much like the rehearsals in a theatrical production. We ran the play in the Villa at Vinamaggio where folklore has it that Monna Lisa lived. This result was an atmosphere of great Bonhomie, trust and a celebration of the play. It helped to be surrounded by fine wine and the beautiful Tuscan countryside of course, but I think everyone knew they were on a very special gig.
When I look back now I realised that I was still very self-conscious at the time and a little awestruck by the whole thing. It was not so much the Hollywood A-listers that made me feel that way, but the wonderful collection of Brits including Branagh himself and the fantastic twin raconteurs of [Richard] Briers and [Brian] Blessed that forever made me want to stop, stare and listen like a kid in Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
You played Benedick when the Company last performed Much Ado About Nothing in 2000, will you be drawing on this experience directing the play?
Yes. I think you draw on all experiences when your directing. I believe that a first-hand knowledge of acting is a very useful thing when you’re directing and there appears to be a growing trend across the country for Artistic Directors with a history of performing.
Your version of Much Ado About Nothing is set at the end of the Second World War. Why have you chosen to set it in this period?
The context of Much Ado is military – soldiers returning from a conflict of some sort. My Dad served in the RAF in the mid-1950s, but his childhood recollections are of Liverpool in the 1940’s blitz. I decided to combine the two and have the play set in 1945 at the end of the war and have the returning military men members of the RAF. I’m also struck by the sounds of the 40s. Although there is nothing good about conflict, there’s something that remains nostalgic in the music of the big band and the sweet sounds of The Andrews Sisters. It won’t be the first or last production to use WW2 as a setting, but it was an idea that both the designer, Lis Evans and myself liked and that seemed like a good enough reason.
The publicity for this production describes the play as being ‘a glorious tale of antagonistic romance and chaotic comedy.’ What does this mean and what can an audience expect when they come to see the production?
Well, I don’t think they’re my words! It’s a romantic comedy – a comedy in that it ends well with a dance and reconciliation. Unlike other plays in the Shakespearean canon the stage isn’t littered with multiple corpses of major protagonists. There is a war of words between a sparring couple, two gullings, a villainous brother and a disastrous wedding. It’s daft, warm-hearted and heartbreaking. We look to the text for guidance and there’s plenty there to delight an audience.
Northern Broadsides has done a terrific job popularising Shakespeare. What can other theatre companies learn from how the company has done this?
Well it’s nice of you to say so. We’ve always performed the play and not the concept. It’s not a lesson for others, but a company choice.
Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play and if so what is it that you particularly like about it?
No favourite. Each becomes a favourite as you rehearse it. There is extraordinary humanity in these plays and wonderful texture and dexterity in the writing. Working with such great material is always a joy.
You have recently decided to step down from the joint roles of Artistic Director and joint CEO, why have you done this and what are your plans for the future?
There comes a time to refresh every organisation and although I’ve only been Artistic Director for 12 months, I worked in partnership as Resident Director and Composer with Barrie for many years. In the end, we developed complementary but different styles of work under the one umbrella of Northern Broadsides.
Refreshing the company is an ongoing process. We have already started on a journey of reinvention and together with Kay Packwood we have initiated a number of changes within the organisation. These are changes that recognise and respond to the expectations of Arts Organisations in 2019. Now that we’ve begun the task it seems sensible that the regeneration should continue under new leadership.
Six years ago Deborah McAndrew secured funding for a new play which led to the birth of a new company in Stoke on Trent called, Claybody Theatre. We’re now on our sixth production and the company grows from strength to strength. I’m delighted that many of the Broadsides’ faithful are also showing support for this work and we’re excited about the company’s plans for the future.
Much of our profession is governed by uncertainty, but there’s also excitement and a sense of anticipation in the unknown. After Much Ado I’ll be directing Brassed Off for a The New Vic and then off to Canada to direct a Cyrano for the St Lawrence Shakespeare festival. Irons are in the fire for Autumn and beyond…
Conrad Nelson’s production of Much Ado About Nothing for Northern Broadsides, co-produced with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme is at the New Vic Theatre from 8 February – 2 March and then is on tour until 25 May
Richard Hall | Image: Nobby Clark