Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, seen on Saturday at Theatre Clwyd, is like no other production of Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy you have ever seen. Purists might hate it, but Filter’s radically-cut, fast-paced version of the play is hugely enjoyable, and every word is the Bard’s. At little more than 90 minutes this is a distilled essence of Twelfth Night. The audience in Mold loved it.As we settle into our seats the stage looks as if it is set up for a music gig rather than a play: bare, but for an assortment of instruments, some microphones and a couple of mixing desks. This is no palace, there is no suggestion of sea coast or woodland. It is not Illyria. Sarah and I are not phased: we know what to expect, having seen Filter’s even more reduced account of Macbeth last year at the Liverpool Everyman.
The cast come on in dribs and drabs, drinking tea, chatting to themselves, or with members of the audience. The musicians are soon noodling away on their instruments. In the shadows at the back of the stage a figure in Elizabethan garb and wearing an excessively large feathered hat can occasionally be glimpsed staggering about drunkenly and declaiming lines from quite different Shakespeare plays.
Jonathan Broadbent (who, it only gradually becomes apparent, is the Duke Orsino) puts down his cup of tea and begins to direct the music, and very soon is orchestrating the our vocal chords to sing out the play’s opening lines:
If music be the food of love, play on!
I don’t know what you’d make of it all if you weren’t familiar with the play and its convoluted storyline involving identical twins, gender-swapping and mistaken identities. Whole chunks of explanatory text are ditched, along with Sebastian’s rescue by Antonio. In fact, Sebastian only appears (sort of) in the final, rather confusing scene).
As the opening song reaches its climax, Orsino grasps a radio broadcasting the shipping forecast and warning of gales: this is just about the only clue to the shipwreck in which Viola thinks her brother has been lost. Washed ashore, Amy Marchant’s Viola stumbles on stage, having discovered she is in Illyria with the aid of the same radio. She quickly transforms herself into Cesario by borrowing a hat and jacket from the audience and stuffing a pair of socks down her trackie bottoms to simulate a codpiece.
The performance continues in Filter’s characteristic vein of structured improvisation, a cunning mix of audience-involving spontaneity and meticulously-planned movement and music, directed by Sean Holmes. The back story of Olivia, her continued mourning of her brother’s death and refusal to respond to Orsino’s overtures, is communicated by mobile phone.
Everyone is dressed in contemporary casual garb – except for Olivia’s cousin, Sir Toby Belch, who is revealed to be the strutting, peacock-like figure we saw in the shadows earlier, played by the strikingly-tall Dan Poole, who appears in feathered hat, ruff, velvet waistcoat and blue silk pantaloons. He is wearing desert boots, however.
He is the centre of one of the most riotous episodes – the nocturnal drinking scene. It starts with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, sozzled on cans of Special Brew, trying to be as quiet as mice, whispering ‘What is love?’ into a hand-mic. But they find it impossible to stop their song building into a rowdy, clapalong number which has Toby and the audience hurling velcro coloured balls at Sir Andrew’s velcro hat (you had to be there) while Toby knocks back Tequila shots, and members of the audience are hauled on stage to join a conga line.
At some point in the proceedings (it all gets a bit hazy in a Filter show), Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek do this thing where they hold the mic to their bonce, generating sounds that suggest what is, or may not be, going on in there. It’s a good example of how Filter use electronic wizadry to create atmosphere – or laughs.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.
Another hilarious moment is the famous scene in which Malvolio is duped by the love letter from Olivia fabricated by Maria. The first thing to be said about Filter’s Malvolio (also played by Jonathan Broadbent) is that he is about as far removed from any representation of Malvolio that I’ve ever seen in a production of Twelfth Night before. Instead of being presented as dour and stuffy, in this production he’s a Rock God, stripped down to nothing more than lurex gold underpants enhanced by bulging codpiece and yellow striped knee socks (in the original’s ‘impossible passages of grossness’, of course, it’s yellow stockings cross-gartered).
If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
Somehow, at this point Twelfth Night turns into the mad carnival of a rock concert with Malvolio strutting his stuff a la Freddie Mercury (though, it must be said, one of rather portlier stature) in the most outrageous fashion.
In their review, the British Theatre Guide observed:
On paper it’s hard to get across the impact of this mayhem. It will have to suffice to say that you are left with a sense that you have encountered this 400-year-old play for the very first time. And that, for all its anarchy, you have been treated to a far more authentic twenty-first century taste of a sixteenth century evening at the theatre.
While in a review that declared that this ‘rock-and-roll Shakespeare’s a blast’, Charles Spencer in the Telegraph wrote:
I must preface this review with a health warning. I know from the furious letters I have received over the years that many Telegraph readers hate productions that “mess around” with Shakespeare, and this show could reduce the Bard’s more puritanical followers to a state of terminal apoplexy. It takes Shakespeare’s dark, poetic comedy as the jumping off point for a dramatic and musical jam session, and when you enter the theatre, the stage seems to be set for a rock concert rather than a play.
But Filter is a company blessed with wit, style and a touch of magic, and despite the huge liberties and bizarre leaps of imagination that the production takes, a great deal of the spirit of the original remains. Better yet, the jokes are genuinely funny, the music, ranging from folk and free jazz to heavy rock, is both spontaneous and exciting, and Shakespeare’s original lyrics are wisely retained.
Some reservations must be entered, however. In barely 90 minutes, there’s little room for anything more than the most basic of characterisation and a lot of Shakespeare’s poetry, and the love-lorn anguish of the text gets lost. And having no actor play Sebastian makes for a clumsy final scene in which Amy Marchant switched between his and Viola’s lines in a not very convincing manner.
Overall, though, this was a really inventive, experimental production that was total enjoyable and probably brought us close to the atmosphere of a performance in Shakespeare’s time.