Think of rock and roll Shakespeare, and likely as not the commercial kitsch of Return To The Forbidden Planet, based on a 1950s science-fiction film inspired by The Tempest, will come to mind. When the energetic Filter company decided to tackle Twelfth Night, however, a far more eclectic musical mix came out in the stripped-down ninety-minute version of Shakespeare's romantic comedy that visits the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week.
Like The Tempest, Twelfth Night opens with a ship-wreck. Unlike The Tempest, Twelfth Night veers off into a madcap sequence of mistaken identity, cross-dressing and thwarted love affairs before the inevitable happy ending as Viola and Duke Orsino get hitched. Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company for its Complete Works Festival in 2006, Filter's thoroughly post-modern take on the play has proved to be a sensation in Edinburgh, London, Holland, Germany and Spain, hence this latest tour.
“It's the show that never dies,” jokes Twelfth Night director Sean Holmes about the production's longevity. “Which, considering how it came about I think is pretty remarkable. We were at the curious end of the Complete Works, alongside a lot of experimental companies playing in a temporary space on the main stage that ended up being the equivalent of a studio theatre. We had two weeks to do it, and we decided we wanted to do something that was really stripped down, that had the energy of a gig and was led by the music. After a few days we realised we were still looking at it like a play, with different lighting states and everything, so we stopped all that and decided just to go for it.”
Filter's Twelfth Night initially ran for three nights before becoming an Edinburgh Fringe hit hat marked something of a turning point for Holmes as a director.
“At that point I'd done quite a lot of work at the RSC,” he says, “and was frustrated with myself at not being able to make what I actually wanted to make. That was my fault, nobody else's. I had all these massive resources available, but things never seemed to work out how I wanted them to.
“I think Twelfth Night was a response to that, to throw away all these barriers, bounce all these ideas around and make something in two weeks flat with this creative collective. Going back to it again now is really interesting, because we never really had time to think about why we were doing something, so at this point we can ask ourselves, well, why did we actually do that?”
As Holmes intimates, while the production stays faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare's original, the music is the show's central component.
“The music is integral,” Holmes says. “It's also more sophisticated than anything we might think of as rock and roll Shakespeare. One song will be experimental jazz, another will be thrash metal or folky, and another will be this strange kind of trip hop reggae. Each one marks the tone and atmosphere of a scene, and helps create this world with just six actors. I suppose it's a bit like watching a radio production in a way, in that it relies on the audience's imagination to help conjure up this world.”
Holmes' attitude fits in perfectly with Filter, who, since forming in 2003, have endeavoured to break theatrical boundaries, both with new and classical-based work. The fact that Filter has three artistic directors – Oliver Dimsdale, Tim Phillips and Ferdy Roberts – itself speaks volumes about the company's collaborative aesthetic. While Phillips composes the shows musical scores, Dimsdale and Roberts have performed in all of Filter's productions, ever since their debut show, Faster, was described in these pages as 'a blink-and-you'll-miss-it perfect fringe experience'.
Since the original production of Twelfth Night, Holmes has become artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, which in 2011 won an Olivier award for 'Outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre' for Holmes' production of Sarah Kane's iconic play, Blasted. The same year Holmes made waves even further when he staged the first London production of Edward Bond's equally iconoclastic play, Saved, in twenty-seven years. With the Lyric currently in the throes of a major redevelopment programme, rather than let the theatre to go dark, and with various parts of the building not always accessible, over the last year Holmes has instigated a season dubbed Secret Theatre.
For this off-kilter venture, Holmes and Secret Theatre's resident dramatist, Simon Stephens, whose fragmented post 7/7 play, Pornography, Holmes directed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, have put together a company of ten actors alongside a mix of ten writers, designers and directors to challenge assumptions of what theatre can be. Audiences will book the eight shows by number rather than name, and may end up seeing a deconstructed classic or else something brand new and uncategorisable.
While such a provocation follows on from a speech Holmes gave in June 2013 in which he pointed out that, among other things, a lot of theatre was boring, its roots can also be seen in Twelfth Night.
“The idea,” Holmes says, “is to try and make a European style ensemble, but which also has traditional British theatrical virtues. A lot of that sort of thinking was influenced by doing Twelfth Night in the way that we did it, and to leave everything wide open in terms of what theatre can be.”
Holmes has collaborated with Filter on another Shakespeare comedy in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. When he and the company next work together, in keeping with the philosophy of Secret Theatre, Holmes wants to push things even further.
“We should probably do a tragedy next,” he muses. “The Filter style lends itself to the anarchy of the comedies, but now maybe Macbeth or King Lear is the next summit to climb.”
Twelfth Night, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 28-February 1.
Filter – Ten Years of breaking the rules.
Filter were formed in 2003 by actors Oliver Dimsdale and Ferdy Roberts and composer Tim Phillips, and produced their debut show, Faster, the same year.
Other original works by Filter include Silence, with the Lyric Hammersmith's then director David Farr in 2007, and Water, again with Farr at the RSC.
Filter's production of Twelfth Night first appeared in 2006 as part of the Royal Shakespeare company's Complete Works festival.
As well as Twelfth Night, Filter have collaborated with Sean Holmes on versions of other classic plays, including Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2010, Chekhov's Three Sisters, produced in the same venue the same year, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The Herald, January 20th 2014