Review by Andrew Cowie
In the 1990s a group of actors and musicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama got together to see how they might make work together. In 2006 their theatre company, Filter, was successful enough to be commissioned by the RSC to stage a production of Twelfth Night for the Complete Works Festival in Stratford. They had ten days and not much money but they did it and nearly eight years later the show is still going strong.
The stage looks like a band rehearsal room; there’s a drum kit, keyboards, microphones on stands, some guitars, a cello and leads running across the stage to practice amps. Some people in ordinary clothes are sitting around chatting, one of them near the front is drinking a cup of tea; they might be actors, musicians, technicians; you can’t tell. Then the drummer sets up a rhythm, the bass joins in with a jazzy riff and the house lights go down. The man with the tea cup tells them to stop and turns to the audience and says, ‘If music…’. We know the rest of the speech and he knows we know it and the show isn’t going anywhere until we all join in and finish it with him.
This informal and collaborative opening sets the tone; Filter is a collective; they call in a director when they need an outside view but it starts with the actors and musicians. The collaborative spirit extends to performances too so if you were in the rehearsal room during rehearsals then you’re part of the devising process and if you’re in the audience then you’re part of the performance.
Liveness, presence and making the audience complicit in the action are key to Filter’s work. Viola borrows a hat and coat from the audience to disguise herself as Cesario and during Sir Toby’s and Sir Andrew’s riotous midnight song a conga line of at least thirty audience members dances round the stage while the rest of us throw velcro balls at Sir Toby’s head before a furious Malvolio stops it and tells us all to behave.
But there’s subtlety too; Viola learns she’s been shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria from a shipping forecast on the radio and the storm which drove her and her brother Sebastian ashore is represented by Orsino’s teacup rattling ominously in its saucer.
The production is based on a stripped down script, there’s probably no more than about an hour of dialogue in the show’s ninety minute running time, and it draws out the themes of misplaced desire and confused identities, helped by extensive doubling. Jonathan Broadbent doubles Orsino and Aguecheek, Sarah Belcher doubles Viola and Sebastian and Natasha Broomfield doubles Maria and Feste so when the play’s chickens come home to roost in Act 5 the confusion is real.
This is a respectful production without being reverent. The playfulness and anarchy is rooted in a deep love and understanding of Shakespeare; he wasn’t an auteur handing down tablets of stone to be performed in respectful silence to an educated elite, he was a company man who wrote parts for the actors he had in order to entertain a restless and illiterate crowd. Filter stay true to Elizabethan theatre practice so there are no lighting cues, no set and very little costume; characters and places are who they say they are when they say it and they can change with a single line. And, like all the best theatre, it’s political – as Augusto Boal said, someone stole our theatre and turned it into an exclusive members-only club but tonight, with Filter’s help, we’re taking it back.