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Filter’s Twelfth Night by Paul Taylor

Fergus O'Donnell (Malvolio) and Lizzy Watts (Olivia)  in Filter Theatre's 'Twelfth Night'.  Photo credit - Robert Day.  ESC_6701

When the Royal Shakespeare Company first commissioned Filter to make a creative response to Twelfth Night as a feature of the great Complete Works project that unfolded in Stratford in 2006–2007, it might have been thought insane that the rehearsal time was just ten days. But there may well have been a method in that technical madness.


Fast and foreshortened conditions for preparation of this event pitched Filter into roughly the same kind of delirium and purposeful perversities with which Twelfth Night confronts the shipwrecked Viola and her sundered identical twin when they fetch up on the shores of Illyria at the start of this play. Twelfth Night is ambiguous and not just sexually—with its gender-crossed antics that propel a girl disguised as boy into a bout of painful proxy wooing on behalf of a man who desires a girl who promptly falls in love with the disguised emissary who, in turn, becomes smitten by the man. Illyria is a topsy-turvy land, betokening the licensed misrule of Twelfth Night (January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany) that was the order of the day in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. The play is also a slippery, double-natured being. It looks back, in the farcical mix-ups caused by twins, to an early drama such as Comedy of Errors, and it looks forward, in its marine imagery and the charged intensity of its reunions, to the late romances, such as Pericles and The Winter’s Tale.


The imaginative use of sound is a Filter speciality. No play of Shakespeare’s yearns for music and song so much as Twelfth Night. Orsino, the Count who is as much in love with love as he is with the rich Olivia, calls for it in the comedy’s famous opening speech: “If music be the food of love, play on,/Give me excess of it…” Reviewing a revival at the Old Vic in 1933, the novelist Virginia Woolf was eloquently impressed by this quality in the piece: “the play seems… to tremble perpetually on the brink of music.” She writes of a Shakespeare whose whole mind is “mobilised and under control but with feelers left flying that sport and play with words so that the trail of a chance word is caught and followed recklessly.”


Woolf could not have anticipated, but I think she would have acknowledged, the imaginative force of Filter’s response to the play’s strange acoustic atmosphere. The stage for their version of Twelfth Night is more reminiscent of a rock gig than a straight play, strewn as it is with sound equipment and musical instruments. Viola is briefed about her new surroundings by the level, impersonal tones of a BBC shipping forecast seeping through a transistor radio. In a brilliant stroke, characters press microphones to their brows and these devices seem to be able to pick up the music of their minds. It’s a great joke that when Sir Toby Belch first does this, nothing whatsoever is heard. But then he’s an anomaly here in more ways than one. Decked out in a huge ruff, doublet and pink hose, this tyrannous drunken sponger is a chaotic tribute to the RSC’s wardrobe department. First heard reciting Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” speech and addicted to cans of Special Brew, he is the only character in “period” dress, the others all wearing the casual contemporary mufti of jeans and sneakers.


The production’s alternative, punk style can be traced back to a series of workshops conducted by Filter and Director Sean Holmes at the National Theatre Studio on the subject of the body. The rehearsal process of researching problems in small groups with a single brief and quick deadline, and then collectively pooling the results was initiated there. It’s one of the hallmarks of Filter that the immediacy of rehearsal room technique is carried through into the style of the productions when they are shown to the public. This is the case here in wonderful conception of Malvolio, the repressively puritanical steward who is a walking affront to the spirit of comedy: selfsatisfied, self-deceived, socially ambitious and, in his own mind’s eye, a great match for Olivia.


The technique, whereby a microphone pressed to the head seems to detect the inner weather of the characters was adapted during rehearsals in a manner that gave the company the clue as to how to play this marvellous part. By pointing the microphone interrogatively at the musicians when required to illustrate Malvolio’s motivations, Filter discovered that the steward is a frustrated rock star who has pathetic, private dreams of strutting his stuff in some vast stadium.


It is a key feature of the Filter style that they aim not at some staid simulacrum or complete transcription of a classic play but rather, choose to concentrate on, and arrestingly highlight, certain undervalued aspects of it. Why do they not try to commandeer the full orchestra? I think that the underlying impulse—whether it be in Brecht (whose Caucasian Chalk Circle they exhilaratingly refreshed) or in Chekhov (whose Three Sisters they revivified so that you seemed to be watching the original Russian actors deposited through violent time-lapse photography onto the stage in the shape of their contemporary equivalents) is to try to make audiences actively participate as they would if challenged with a completely new work. Filter—who seem, to me, to be the most creative beneficiaries of the methods patented by Simon McBurney and Complicite—do, of course, also create their own free-standing pieces, pre-eminently the superb Water (2007). This piece made myriad-minded play, metaphorically and plot-wise, with the idea that, in a globally-warming world, the molecular structure of water, which longs to bond with other elements, offers a flexible image of how the geopolitical world needs to reconnect with itself in order to head off planetary disaster.


The company is developing a cult status (the Lyric Hammersmith is said to have received more letters of celebration and more letters of complaint than ever before after their Three Sisters). But then experiment is, by its very nature, challenging—and to divide audiences is a great deal better than to leave them numbly noncommittal.


– Paul Taylor is the theatre reviewer for the UK’s Independent newspaper.

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