November 8, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night (Filter) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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As part of the original Complete Works ‘Bardathon’, I was one of the few people lucky enough to catch the earliest days of Filter Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night, when it was still just a work-in-progress being tested out in the tiny Cube space. The finished version has been touring for a while now, and after two years it finally returned to Stratford for a one-night-only showing in the Courtyard.

Despite only being half full, there was a party feel in the auditorium. The play didn’t begin until 11pm, and I don’t think mine was the only group to have been to the pub beforehand. Combined with a noisy school group in the gallery and the younger half of the RSC Hamlet cast on a group night out, it was a convivial atmosphere that Filter played up to. The house lights were left up for the production and the company concentrated on maintaining the feeling of a shared experience, interacting freely with the audience and encouraging noisy response throughout.

Now extended to an hour and a half, this was still a heavily cut version of Twelfth Night. Fabian and Antonio were entirely excluded, and Sebastian wasn’t seen until he bumped into Feste and Sir Andrew in time to be mistaken for the ‘cowardly’ Cesario. Other scenes were cleverly conflated to speed up the action; for example, Ferdy Roberts’ Malvolio went directly from reading ‘Olivia’s’ letter to stripping down to yellow underpants and posing before Olivia.

As with all Filter’s productions, the process was a part of the performance itself. The stage manager sat on stage, all tech was controlled by performers, almost all music and sound effects were created live. This latter was particularly important in a production that effectively turned Twelfth Night into a sound-piece, moving quickly from song to song and turning every set piece into another musical number. Music was used creatively to pitch mood and ideas, as much a part of the narrative as Shakespeare’s words. Thus, the play began with a free-form jazz jam semi-conducted by Orsino, out of which he suddenly plucked a single keyboard melody as his strain with a "dying fall"; and Malvolio’s fantasy of being ‘Count Malvolio’ was conducted to a percussive, bass-led, muddy grunge tune, during which he played air-bass and drums as he got caught up in his own delusions.

The good humour of the company brought the audience onside immediately, as they waved at the kids in the gallery and wandered round the stage in their own clothes. The quirky openness of the performance style brought huge laughter at the silliest jokes, with knowing nods to the audience as, for example, Poppy Miller’s Viola stuff a pair of socks into her trousers as part of her transformation into Cesario. Costumes were ad hoc and largely transparent, but what there was was used creatively: Viola borrowed a jacket and cap from audience members to become Cesario, Malvolio stripped off to reveal yellow socks and all-too-revealing bright yellow underpants, and Feste (a rather sad, downtrodden clown) wore a simple red nose, which she placed respectively on Olivia’s and Malvolio’s noses to show them as fools.

The one exception to costume was Oliver Dimsdale’s tremendous Sir Toby, who spent much of the play wandering around the auditorium in Elizabethan ruff and jerkin, declaiming lines from Hamlet to a skull he’d picked up. This Sir Toby was truly hysterical, whether entering with the skull in place of his own head to scare Sir Andrew or belching into microphones. It was Sir Toby who kicked off the play’s central set piece, a superb late night drinking scene which merits full description.

In a moment of on-stage silence, a burbled drinking song was heard being quietly sung in the wings. Eventually, Toby sneaked in, perfectly capturing the self-conscious drunk trying to be quiet, shushing the floorboards as they creaked under his feet, but still singing his refrain in a whisper ("What is love? Tis not hereafter"). He was soon joined by Sir Andrew, wearing a velcro cap with sticky balls attached to it, and the two began to sing together, still shushing each other every time their voices rose, but sending each other into hysterics. Joined by Maria, the three sang together and started throwing the balls at Andrew’s head, shushing the audience’s applause as they successfully connected. As the band joined in and the volume rose, the party really began. Andrew showed off some backflips, the balls were passed around the audience for them to start throwing and the rest of the cast donned party hats and joined in the singing. Andrew disappeared offstage and re-emerged with a huge stack of pizza boxes which were distributed quickly around the audience, and before long the audience were clapping and singing along, performing Mexican waves around the theatre, and the Hamlet cast were up on stage dancing with Filter. Description somewhat neuters the effect, but essentially a real party had broken out in the Courtyard which the audience got fully involved in over what must have been a good fifteen minutes. Inevitably, Malvolio marched in and turned off the power, instantly killing the party and prompting loud and heartfelt boos from the entire theatre. It was both good fun and dramatically stunning, the time taken to build up completely worth it, creating one of the most effective scenes I’ve ever witnessed in Stratford.

The production had its more serious elements. Gemma Saunders’ Feste was particularly interesting; a cockney geezer of a clown, her songs had a slightly desperate sense of mania about them as she whipped up her audience, but then drew out moments of sadness such as her a capella "Come away, come away death" before Orsino. Doubling as Maria, she was also the subject of a brutal throat-grasping from Malvolio at the end of the party, and didn’t receive her happy ending with Toby. Slightly disappointingly, the doubling of Viola and Sebastian felt less well realised in this performance than in the work-in-progress, though the impact of the same actor kissing Olivia, then kissing Orsino while still holding Olivia’s hand, was still strong.

This production was focussed on the spirit of Twelfth Night, the music and festivity that pervade the play, meaning it went for celebration over interpretation. At the end of the evening, during the encore of their final song, Saunders introduced the cast by name with a "Thank you Stratford!" that stressed the fact this was as much gig/party as play. That sense of joy, along with the excellent music, made this an evening to remember, a production that took a genuinely innovative approach to the play that revitalised it and made it fun. While there were flaws (some of the songs dragged a bit, and the dialogue sections between the set-pieces were far less interesting – Shakespeare intruded far too much!), this was a brave and inspired production. Roll on Filter’s next show.

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