Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Filter, in association with the RSC
Tobacco Factory, Bristol
(2008)

Production photo

Just as the Victorian parlour editions of Shakespeare, stripped of ‘objectionable material’ or Baz Luhrmann’s fast-paced gun-slinging 90s Romeo and Juliet, provide a glimpse of their respective cultures, so Filter’s Twelfth Night seems able to hold a mirror up to the nature of theatre in the late noughties both visually and in its ethos.

On entering the theatre, the stage is a mass of colourful chaos: musical instruments, electrical gadgetry, props, hats, microphone stands. Everything set for use is on show, and the result looks like a cross between a radio studio and the contents of a giant upturned toy box. Costumes are pared down to bright coloured t-shirts and jeans, with Poppy Miller’s Viola borrowing her Cesario getup from a man in the audience. It’s wonderfully playful, while at the same time adopting the broken fourth wall, storytelling aesthetic with which we have become familiar in recent years. Original touches like the Illyria shipping news and Orsino answering his mobile - ‘How now, what news?’ - serve to re-contextualise the script with modern analogues, most brilliantly illustrated through Ferdy Robert’s Malvolio in his Olivia fantasy. Backed by a Tarantino-esque thumping soundtrack Roberts taps into both the pathos of the cruel trick played on Malvolio and the sinister arrogance inherent in his character.

Indeed the sound design takes on a character of its own, at times providing live musical framework for the action, at other times creating voices in characters’ heads or extra-textual humour.

But there are also some features here which echo the climate in which the play was written. The house lights stay on for the entirety, making the interaction between audience and performers an honest one; festivities are rounded off, if not with a jig, with an upbeat song and dance. In a touch of brilliance, Sir Toby Belch (Oliver Dimsdale), drifts round in Elizabethan garb like the hungover ghost from the afterparty of Shakespeare’s original production.

In all this concept-driven anarchy it would be easy to assume that both the poetry and the plot suffer somewhat, and to an extent they do. While Miller’s Viola carries Shakespeare’s verse with its deserving soulful elegance, others in the cast, most notably Syreeta Kumar’s wildly animated Olivia, seem charged more by maintaining the energy and momentum of the production than by getting under the skin of the text.

It’s by no means perfect. The doubling, particularly the decision to double Viola and Sebastian, while giving rise to tug-of-war humour at the end, does make for some confusion. Shakespeare purists might have their hackles raised by the fact that for the most part the script is drastically cut (down to a very noughties 90-minutes), while certain episodes such as the revelry of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek are expanded upon into raucous audience participatory fiestas.

But regardless of taste, either despite or because of the vibrant concept and excessive use of technology, Filter have created a piece which is both riotously festive and thoroughly enjoyable.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Tricycle, Kilburn

Reviewer: Lucy Ribchester