Illyria? I think not. This is about as far away from a natural setting of Twelfth Night as you could possibly imagine. No palaces, no sea coasts, no woodland; instead the stage is set up for a rock concert. Guitars, keyboards, drums, speakers, overlapping wires and microphones, all set on a blank black stage. The stage manager is sat at her desk at the back in full view of the audience. The cast come on in dribs and drabs, drinking tea, chatting to themselves, sizing up the audience, offering us Werthers’ Originals (I am of an age where these are becoming de rigueur) and generally warming themselves up in very relaxed way.
As I said only last week I would much sooner see a brave failure of an experimental production rather than a lazy, easy success. We’ve seen Filter once before, a few years ago when they brought their Three Sisters to the Derngate. It was avant-garde, but for me not quite avant-garde enough, and it just didn’t stamp its mark on the play quite as strongly as I would have liked. Not so with Twelfth Night. This is a very, very wacky and way out approach to the play and, I have to say, we both enjoyed it immensely. It’s brave and experimental, and certainly not a failure. The only aspect which I feel doesn’t quite work is if the creative team were hoping you’d go home fully understanding the original Twelfth Night story. If you’ve not seen the play before I think you’d be confused by the doubling up of characters and not quite understanding the changing locations; if you are familiar with the play, that would also help you appreciate some of the extra little nuances they chuck in from time to time. Otherwise, it’s a palpable hit throughout.
It’s certainly not for purists though. About fifteen minutes in, an older gentleman got up from his seat and walked right across the front of the stage and through the exit in a very obvious “I’ve had enough of this rubbish” mood. He could have been a plant I guess – we saw that done once with DV8 Dance Company many years ago but that looked precisely like the plant it was. This gesture, with its resultant slightly surprised looks and comments from the cast, seemed pretty genuine to me. If you were going to see this production as a student of English literature, I’m not sure it would be hugely beneficial to you. If you were going to see it as a drama student, then you’d find it endlessly fascinating.
The cast all play their various instruments and operate computers with recorded sound throughout the show giving the impression that the music and sound effects arise organically out of the text rather than being an artificial accompaniment. A lot of the setting seems to be derived from Orsino’s first speech, “if music be the food of love, play on” (audience members might have to prompt him to remember it) as the Duke is trying to distinguish the white noise rubbish that’s invading his brain from the clear notes of melodic love that he’s also trying to locate. It’s a clever interpretation of that opening scene, and it works well.
Viola becomes Cesario by borrowing a jacket and a hat from members of the audience – which is a clever touch, because how else would the shipwrecked Viola conveniently come by men’s clothes? Toby Belch first enters uttering Hamlet’s soliloquy and staggering off in a drunken heap – possibly an Elizabethan equivalent of singing “Show me the way to go home.” Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s noisy revels are inventively portrayed with acrobatics, ball games with the audience, involving a member of the front row (me, actually) in singing their song, and passing pizza around the stalls. When Malvolio puritanically interrupts the revelry with his aghast “is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?” he pointed speechlessly to three ladies sitting in the second row who were scoffing pizza, which really involved the audience in sharing the same guilt due to bad behaviour as Belch and Aguecheek; it was an extremely funny scene. There are loads more examples of inventive staging that I shan’t tell you about – you’ll have to go see the play.
The cast are first rate throughout. Jonathan Broadbent is a classy if music-mad Orsino and doubles up as the foppish but totally believable Andrew Aguecheek. Lizzy Watts is an authoritative Olivia, stiffly respectable and no-nonsense until she starts fancying Cesario, when traces of an amusingly suppressed ladette appear. Polly Frame does a very good job of differentiating Viola (and Cesario) from Sebastian, using a superb deep voice and nicely portraying the latter’s penchant for a punch-up. Sandy Foster is a brilliant Feste, as wise a fool as you could hope to meet; she comes across as a naturally funny person and you sense she is the gel that actually makes much of the production stick together. Geoffrey Lumb is a hilarious Sir Toby, not only because he looks just like Mrs Chrisparkle’s cousin Nick, who is himself in many ways a real life Sir Toby, but also for his superb attention to comic detail, immaculate facial expressions and a performance of total conviction. Fergus O’Donnell’s Malvolio is a brilliant creation – full of waspish bossiness at first, then when he thinks Olivia fancies him he gains rockstar status in his head, with some terrific air guitar work and louche body language; finally his total humiliation is capped by being imprisoned for alleged lunacy – it’s a great performance that really makes you feel sorry for the old steward.
At 90 minutes without an interval, and with long periods in silence or several repetitions of the same song, you can guess that they’ve trimmed a lot of the excess of the text away, removing a few characters and leaving the very bare structure of the plot. They’ve torn up the rule book on how to perform Shakespeare and I was very impressed with the way they all carried it off so well. But the basic story is still all there and you won’t be disappointed at the way they depict Olivia’s falling in love with Cesario and then Sebastian, Malvolio appearing cross-garter’d, Toby Belch being a drunken wreck, and much more besides. Anarchic, inventive but above all, huge fun, this is a great production that’s touring round the country and I would definitely recommend it!