West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 28 February 1995

Blake Morrison's Yorkshire version of Heinrich von Kleist's eighteenth-century comedy Der Zerbrochene Krug, having been passed up by Richard Eyre at the National, is unveiled by Barrie Rutter's Northern Broadsides company in a characteristically up-front, no-nonsense production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Kleist's plot operates more like tragedy than comedy, in that it rests not on unpredictability but on the slow, inexorable discovery by the characters of what the audience has long since grasped. In this case, though, the mystery is a ridiculous one: that the drunken, venal and generally incompetent Judge Adam is himself the culprit in a case which comes before him.

It's a one-joke play, to which Morrison adds a second. As well as translating the action from Utrecht in 1700 to his home town of Skipton, some time during the Napoleonic Wars, he makes the visiting assessor Judge Walter a Mancunian; Walter, in addition to his forlorn attempts to keep justice on the rails whilst Judge Adam splutters with increasing desperation, has to endure endless re-eruptions of the age-old Yorkshire-Lancashire rivalry even the broken jug around which the lawsuit revolves, it transpires, was decorated with scenes from the Wars of the Roses.

Two gags may not seem enough for a two-hour play. However, Morrison's defiantly dialect translation produces the linguistic equivalent of a burning cigarette-end dropped into a box of fireworks; from the opening scene in which Judge Adam complains of being tom-flogged by grenky dreams, we know to expect a vocabulary that takes its coat off, rolls up its sleeves and sets about it with a passion. Contemporary references to teachers' pay and even Judge Pickles sneak in amid all the exuberance.

Director Rutter keeps both the play's feet firmly on the ground. Broadsides animate a vision of theatre as a folk event not to be pickled and venerated (in the sense that "traditional" has come paradoxically to mean "...but dead"), but as one that speaks directly and in plain terms to its audience. The sprinkling of topical gags, the cheek of the dialect and the playing style combine to frustrate any attempt by the spectator to sit back and stroke his chin. It's a style of directness and community that harks back to mediaeval morality plays.

As Judge Adam, Rutter continues the comparison. Clumping around the stage with his club foot, glowering pop-eyed like a judicial troll, his bald pate enlivened by a Jackson Pollock of scratches, bruises and bumps, Rutter's Adam is a direct descendant of the demon in a morality play: we know he's wicked, but by God he's fun, and anyway we can see through the performance and recognise him at bottom as one of us.

John Branwell as Judge Walter provides a solid guy-rope to the world outside the idiosyncratic Skipton court; Paul McCrink, as Adam's clerk Bright (who twigs early on where the evidence is leading) has a nice line in self-satisfied smirks, and Cathy Sara as the unfairly maligned Eve Rudd enjoys an impressive outburst when the scales finally fall from her eyes and the extent of Judge Adam's lecherous deception is revealed.

Both on and offstage, however, the motivating force comes from Rutter. It is a force which plainly succeeds in connecting with the audience: at one point, a punter in front of me whispered to her companion, "That's you, that is." That's all of us, that is; if it isn't, God help us.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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