Northern Broadsides is a Yorkshire-based theatre company best known for advocating northern talent in northern venues, and performing Shakespeare and classical texts with a unique style. This year it is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with a production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
This is actress Emily Aston’s first time performing with Northern Broadsides, and it has given her the chance to be herself. For her, “the good thing about doing Shakespeare with Northern Broadsides is the actors need to be northern, and you can do it in your own accent. Some other people probably wouldn’t look twice at me for a Shakespeare.” She finds that as a “broad northerner” there are certain parts that she won’t normally be considered for, “so it’s so lovely to get this opportunity because I feel that I’m learning loads”. Another newcomer to the company, Kelsey Brookfield, affirms that despite being a southerner, “I can put on a northern accent”. As an actor with previous experience performing Shakespeare, the particular appeal of working with Northern Broadsides for him is the process and ethos of the company.
It is an ensemble-based company: “everybody’s there throughout the entire rehearsal process. You’re all there with the music; you’re acting, you’re discovering.” There’s a sense that everyone is included and knows the whole play, not just the parts their characters are in. For Brookfield, this means “everyone has more ownership of the story”, and with everyone feeling like a part of the production, “it feels organic”. For two young actors working in the same company, Aston and Brookfield have surprisingly different backgrounds. Southern-born Brookfield’s interest in theatre began at the age of 13, when his mother took him to see a play at the Derby Playhouse. “I remember seeing a character on stage that I was just completely spellbound by,” he explains, and this lead to an interest in getting involved in theatre himself. Brookfield was, in his own words, “quite naughty at school”, and acting was a way to keep him out of trouble: “I asked teachers and various people at school if there were youth theatres or any amateur acts that I could join”. From his participation in youth theatre, he took the next step at the age of 18 and applied to drama schools. After studying for three years at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School where he was classically trained, he then got his first job at Bristol’s Playhouse. For Brookfield, “it was just kind of straightforward, really.” Aston’s story is different; her route into acting was much less clear-cut. It happened “by accident” when, at the age of seven, a director and assistant director visited her school. “They were looking for little red-headed girls for a drama called Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit [by Jeanette Winterson],” she recalls. Expecting nothing, she applied. “I always remember my head teacher going up to my mum that day after school going, ‘Janet, the BBC had a chat with your Emily, but I don’t think anything will come of it.’” But something did come of it, and after travelling to BBC Manchester to do a reading, she got the part (for which she later received a BAFTA nomination). “My mum then went to the local library and found me an agent from the Yellow Pages, and it just went from there!” Since then, Aston has mostly worked in TV, getting her training “on the job”. Her experience has been very different from classically-trained Brookfield’s work with the all-male Shakespeare-producing theatre company, Propeller. Yet both performers are thrilled that they are joining Northern Broadsides on the cusp of the company’s twentieth anniversary.
Aston has always been keen to work with the company: “I’d always heard amazing things and I’d thought, ‘I’d love to be part of that.’” For her, being part of the anniversary season makes her involvement extra special. For Brookfield, too, “it’s an honour to be working with the company on its twentieth anniversary”. They are both thoroughly enjoying working on Love’s Labour’s Lost, a comedy in which a king and his three companions swear an oath to focus on academia for three years, and during this time they vow never to speak to a woman. Lo and behold, the next day a princess and her three companions arrive, and the king and his men fall in love. A tale of hilarity unfolds. Brookfield plays the part of Dumaine, one of the king’s companions. Reflecting on his character, Brookfield observes, “he’s young, he’s naïve – as they all are really. But I kind of see him as a bit of a cad, who probably thinks he’s a bit cooler than he really is.” As with the rest of the play, the character of Dumaine allows much room for comedy, especially as he often puts his foot in his mouth. “He’s a bit too honest. He doesn’t really know how to use his words to the best of his ability.”
Aston’s character takes herself much less seriously than Dumaine. She plays Jacquenetta, and Aston confesses, “it’s a really nice part because it’s comedy. She’s funny and she says it how it is.” As someone sought after by two of the other characters in the play, “flirting and frolicking” with them, Jacquenetta is much more adept at the game of love. And mainly it’s her strong attitude that makes her such an appealing character: “She doesn’t worry about the king. She doesn’t worry that they’re better than her.” As a whole, the play is “loads of fun”, as Brookfield puts it. Aston agrees, adding, “it’s brilliant doing comedy because you get a nice reaction back from the audience”. This is especially the case with Love’s Labour’s Lost, as often the audience will be one step ahead of the characters in knowing what’s going on. That doesn’t necessarily mean the play is predictable, however, and as Brookfield explains, “what we have to do is we have to flip it, and the audience will hopefully find that quite exciting”.
In an innovative twist, the character of The Messenger will be played by a different actor at every venue – something special designed to mark the occasion of the anniversary. Far from finding it nerve-wracking to work with someone new at each different venue, both actors find the idea exciting. As Aston puts it, “it’ll be lovely because it’ll be someone new, and someone who might deliver it in just a little bit of a different way. It’ll be refreshing.” Brookfield also finds the move a clever one, adding that “to have someone new come into a scene kind of adds a bit of excitement, and it changes the dynamics slightly, and it adds to the surprise”. There are other ways in which the production has been kept fresh, not least in the fact that it has been set in the 1930s. This undoubtedly makes the show more visually accessible for the audience, and as Aston notes, “it’s very glamorous, the costumes are amazing”.
But what really gives the production its unique feel is Northern Broadsides’ particular way of doing things, with original music by Conrad Nelson and direction by Barrie Rutter. According to Aston, “the ideas they bring to it are just brilliant”. Rutter’s directing style is very much text-based, focusing on the musicality of Shakespeare’s verse. “He’s such a stickler when it comes to the text, and the poetry and the rhythm of the dialogue. It’s like music, the way that he directs the scenes,” Brookfield explains. Rutter’s enthusiasm and attention to detail really come through in the production, and as Brookfield sees it,” the audience will get a huge thrill and buzz when you’re playing with those words in that way. It’s great, the audience love it!” Rutter’s directing style is also something the actors appreciate when it comes to rehearsals, and what he is best at is really helping the actors understand the text thoroughly. As Aston notes, “I love it because he just breaks it down to how you can understand it, and then you can deliver the line.” Brookfield agrees: “he will give you a note and then he’ll demonstrate it, which is great because sometimes it’s very hard to get it from somebody explaining it”. It especially helps that he is an actor himself, because it means “he understands what it is to be an actor”.
Ultimately, the show promises to be an invigorating and fast-paced take on a Shakespearian classic, with a distinctive Northern Broadsides flavour. A company that can take a classic and interpret it in an accessible way clearly holds an important role in theatre today. Aston equates this with Northern Broadsides’ regional focus: “they get the real, raw talent. It gives more people opportunities, and the chance to be yourself and northern where you’re not putting anything on”. Not only great for northern actors, the audience benefit as well. “There’s a notion that Shakespeare is a kind of upper class, posh, southern thing that probably isn’t meant for everyone else,” says Brookfield, but in his view Shakespeare is universal. What Northern Broadsides and others are doing is “reclaiming it, and saying, ‘no, we can have it as well,’ which is important”. Let’s hope, then, that for a long time to come Northern Broadsides keep providing “Shakespeare for the masses – which is what it should be about”.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is touring until 5 May. For more information, tour dates and to book tickets, visit the company’s website.