Running at just under 90 minutes, you’d expect that Filter’s production of Twelfth Night would kill off some Shakespeare purists, but, in a bold dramaturgical move, this Twelfth Night is as much about what cult creative company Filter decides to add in as about what they cut out. I’d estimate that about 70 minutes of the performance is from the text itself, while the other 20 minutes are ad-libs, musical riffing, and slapstick silence and SFX. In this Twelfth Night, the music isn’t just ornamental – it’s instrumental.
The band take over the entire stage, nonchalantly accompanying the festivities onstage while the six-strong cast navigate around their electronic scenery to strike up the occasional melody with strategically placed microphones, horns, strings, guitars, and kazoos. We gently ease into the preset with a gradual light jazz loop before the band falls silent and Orsino (Jonathan Broadbent) teases his audience as he withholds the famous first lines of the play: “If music be the food of love, play on etc. etc. etc.”. This clever lampshading of the played-out tropes of Shakespeare performance is the beginning of a series of exercises in de-familiarisation – Filter’s specialty.
Having said this, a degree of familiarity is needed for full enjoyment of this performance. The production falls flat when it comes to storytelling, meaning that those with no prior knowledge of the plot will fall behind and lose some of the cleverer dramatic turns.
Some members of the cast, particularly Sarah Belcher (Viola/Sebastian) and Liz Fitzgibbon (Olivia), seemed left to flounder with dialogue and soliloquies, unable to bring out the musicality in normal speech.
However, it’s clear that rehearsal time has been spent elsewhere, with the acoustic antics giving way to spectacular musical numbers. The onstage microphones amplify the characters’ private moments, and from this anarchic expressionism many of the play’s highlights gradually grow to fantastical crescendos.
Two particular highlights are Malvolio’s (Fergus O’Donnell) rock-star reverie upon receiving the “obscure epistles of love” that includes a filthy pornographic bassline with reverberating back-up moaning vocals from Olivia, and the tentative growth of the “What is love?” song from Act II, Scene III. Starting from the soft drunken burble of Sir Toby (the charismatic Geoffrey Lumb) the song builds to a carnivalesque climax with juggling balls, free pizza, and conga lines (warning: audience participation frequent). What let these two comically fecund and textually insightful scenes down was a tendency to milk the silences of the play, slowing the comedy down with no real cause – one gag with a swordfight was held for a grand total of 20 seconds (I counted), carrying on long after the joke was received and appreciated.
Though Filter is definitely accruing a cult following in the theatrical world for its ingenious technical artwork, there are elements of this performance that will rest a little uneasily with every audience demographic. Shakespeare buffs will be pleased to see new interpretations of the play but disappointed that so many integral aspects of the play have been over-looked. Families with precocious children might love its intimate pantomime peppiness but they may not be so keen on a section telling them how to spell the word c-u-n-t (whatever that is.)
PHOTO/ Johann Heinrich Ramberg, Yale Center for British Art at AAFgJ-ZuL_rT2Q at Google Cultural Institute