Talking shortly before the first performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost at Northern Broadsides’ spiritual and administrative home, Dean Clough in Halifax, Barrie Rutter is perplexed when I ask him how many Shakespeare plays the company has mounted in its remarkable 20 year history. 20-odd, he thinks – executive director Sue Andrews, called on to help, agrees: 20-odd! So is he going for the full set, now generally reckoned at 38?

“We can’t sell every play to the theatres. It’s not been easy selling this. It’s only really the two big companies that do this play, but I’ve always liked it, so I decided to do it, although venues obviously prefer the safe choices, the top 12. Having said that, once you’ve worked on the play for six months and the actors are at home with it, it’s a treat, I’m very fond of it.

“The young nobles may be foolish, but they’re real people. All the way through the girls are wittier than the men. The young men make this fatuous promise not to see any women for three years – automatically they’re forsworn and immediately they all go Doing! when the ladies appear. That’s basically the story and then you have all these crazies around – and, like a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies (and, indeed, some of the tragedies), it’s the lower orders that find out the follies of the upper classes. It’s a very human piece.”

Though many people, myself included, still feel the place to see Broadsides is Dean Clough, the company thrives on being a touring company, with Love’s Labour’s Lost playing eight theatres in something over three months. It’s understandable in straitened times that theatres want a play that guarantees bums on seats and Broadsides have supplied more than their share of these such as the various incarnations of Richard III and Othello with Lenny Henry. Plays that have been difficult to sell to theatres have often been non-Shakespeare, as, for instance, a magnificent production of Milton’s Samson Agonistes with designs by Anthony Caro, a production which Barrie reminds me never got further than ten performances at Dean Clough.

Northern Broadsides began with Shakespeare (Richard III) at Middleham Castle) and for the first three years the only non-Shakespeare the company staged was Poetry or Bust, Tony Harrison’s play about Yorkshire poet John Nicholson, performed at Salts Mill, near the spot where the poet drowned. In 2010, on the other hand, five productions were staged, not one of them a Shakespeare play, though admittedly the success of Othello, by this time in London, had much to do with delaying a planned Hamlet until the following year. So Is Shakespeare still Broadsides’ calling card?

“Not so much now because Conrad (Nelson, associate director/composer) has a different feel to me. He has done things like 1984 and The Canterbury Tales. I like the mixture because he has done things that don’t appeal to me as something I would like to do. For instance, I would no more do 1984 the way he did than fly to the Moon, but he brought it off superbly.”

So there is no plan to complete the Shakespearean canon, no sense in which Broadsides is purely a company with a distinctive way with Shakespeare, but there are Shakespearean plays that Barrie has his eye on. Rather wistfully he fears that Coriolanus which he sees as a great play may be difficult to sell because of its problematic tone, but he wants to add the Falstaff of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 to the Merry Wives version he did in Broadsides’ early days – not easy to plan because doing both parts, with Henry V tagged on for completeness’ sake, constitutes a major project.

The Northern voice (not accent, Barrie insists) was Broadsides’ original unique selling point, but that has become less of an issue over time:

“When I set the company up 20 years ago, I was insistent on that. It’s like Mohammed Ali when he first changed his name and he said, ‘What’s my name?’ – bang! – ‘What’s my name?’ – bang! It was like that with us in ’92, ’93, ’94 and ’95. It’s calmer now, but I’m still aware of not allowing any homogenisation. There’s still the spirit of the Northern voice, that alacrity. When I play the pedant in Love’s Labour’s Lost, it comes out a bit posh, but it’s Yorkshire posh.”

But there is still much that is unique about the company’s approach. On tour the productions are re-configured and re-imagined for widely differing venues. I talked to Barrie after a busy day preparing for the evening performance:

“It’s our first performance tonight in this shape, so we’ve been working all day from 11 to half past 5 to turn it round. We began in the round at The New Vic, Stoke (co-producers with Northern Broadsides), then proscenium arch last week at the Duke’s, Lancaster. We’ve always done that, adapted to different venues. This place, the Viaduct Theatre, is not easy, but our audience has great affection for it. People might say, ‘It’s cold here’ or ‘It’s damp here’ or ‘The seats are too narrow here’ (none of which are in our control) but they still like to come. Downstairs it’s a natural setting in itself, but you can’t travel it, so, as we’ve become better funded, we’ve improved how we look in bigger theatres.”

Or what about the music? Broadsides take advantage of the large numbers of skilled actor/instrumentalists coming out of college, but the way in which Barrie (as director) and Conrad (as composer) use them is unusual – the music fits the performers, not vice versa:

“The music for Love’s Labour’s Lost is beautifully melodic, all acoustic and all played by actors. When I cast, I say, ‘Yes, you can be the King. What do you play?’. When he says cello, Conrad writes for the cello. Then, when the Princess of France says violin and viola, he writes for those. There’s hardly any music written before we start rehearsals.”

Then there’s the actor playing Mercade, the messenger who delivers a brief, important message at the end. Barrie didn’t want another actor doubling (“I didn’t want the audience to have seen this person”), but paying an actor for three lines on a three-month tour, making a 17-strong cast, seemed extravagant:

“One of our team, Kay Burnett, said, ‘What about if ex-Broadsiders came in for a fee and did it for one night rather than pay someone for the whole three months?’ By the end of the run there’ll have been 20 or 25 different people playing the part. We started out with those who live closest to Stoke and tonight we’ve got Andy Whitehead who was in Canterbury Tales and played Henry VI in Wars of the Roses.”

A unique solution that blends unwillingness to compromise the play, financial hard-headedness and the sense of Broadsides as a family!

And the company’s biggest achievement in 20 years?

“The fact that we’ve kept going.”