Twelfth Night is a ravishing feast for the eyes, ears and soul

TwelfthNight_750FILTER Theatre’s speed-striped production of Old Bill Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, directed by Sean Holmes, can be variously described as: anarchic, delirious, raucous and, yet, above all these pesky adjectives, the words ‘ridiculous fun’ spring most readily to mind. The production is bawdy and irreverent in its approach to Shakespeare’s hallowed verse, manifested most readily in a moment when Sir Toby Belch wanders inebriatedly in while reciting Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. The result is a hyper-kinetic aural bombardment that electrifies the senses, galvanises the words of the Bard and puts this cynic’s stance on audience participation to shame. What other production of Shakespeare has involved conga lines, pizza handouts and getting an audience member to down a shot of tequila onstage?

If you’re looking for a rigidly faithful, beat-for-beat, iamb-for-iamb rendition of Twelfth Night, then this is really, really not for you. Clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes, Filter’s production trims a good hour of proceedings and what I can only presume to be reams of dialogue; the action onstage is punctuated with lengthy periods of textless revelry and silence, variously backed by manic musical interludes and accompaniment. The cast’s sheer exuberance of physicality propels much of the action forward when words do not. For purists, this may well be tantamount to blasphemy, but the fact of the matter is that Shakespeare’s language perfectly encapsulates the ribald spectacle that Filter has conjured with their production; he always was pretty saucy and irreverent, after all.

Of course, the trouble with truncating Twelfth Night so much leads to problems with the actual narrative, though it is rendered secondary. Those unfamiliar with the original play (myself included) might find themselves relatively baffled getting to grips with the various double identities; who’s who, when and where the characters are supposed to be in terms of location can be cortically overwhelming. Fortunately, given the precedence of action and sound over language and setting, any confusion felt should not detract from the actual performance, particularly with regards to setting; since the fourth wall is thoroughly broken within a minute of the opening as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a versatile Johnathan Broadbent) offers us tea, the illusion of verisimilitude is rendered irrelevant. What matters is having fun, and fun is what we are given.

Polly Frame’s double role of the siblings Viola and Sebastian is accomplished by borrowing a hat (mine, it turned out) and a coat from the audience; she manages to juggle the demanding roles with real panache, variously acting as bemused spectator and bewildered object of Olivia’s (Lizzy Watts) affection. Frame and Watts’ natural chemistry lights up the stage, playing off each other brilliantly. Watts’ Olivia gradually turns from prim and austere noble to amorous near-ladette as the play progresses, while Fergus O’Donnell’s initially puritanical Malvolio loses the courtly trappings of his post when he believes Olivia fancies him, becoming a hedonistic rock-god clad in golden hotpants, making his ultimate humiliation all the more hilarious.

Sandy Foster’s double role of Feste and Maria (distinguished by a simple red nose) encompasses dignified poise and acerbic commentary, striking off of Geoffrey Lumb’s emphatically drunk Sir Toby and Broadbent’s foppish Sir Andrew. Broadbent’s other role of Duke Orsino emphasises the importance of music in the play, striking up a drum solo in one scene to underscore proceedings. The cast as a whole is fantastic, bringing wit and brio to a production already electrified with energy.

The stage they tread is interestingly bereft of ornaments, setting or distinguishing features beside a spangle of daunting wires and the musical instruments connected to them; the staging more closely resembles a rock concert than a theatrical show. The production’s most striking innovation to an oft-performed play is its explosive, expansive use of sound. At all times onstage, instruments are laid out and variously played by the performers, leading to some riotous party sequences, the centrepiece of which is interrupted by a goggle-eyed Malvolio screaming, “Masters, are you mad?” lending delicious irony to his eventual incarceration for, you guessed it, lunacy.

The madness, it turns out, is infectious: Filter’s Twelfth Night is a ravishing feast for the eyes, ears and soul. Music really is the food of love, if this is anything to go by.