Shakespeare is very much on Ferdy Roberts' mind just now. Last week saw
the actor and director complete a West End run of Shakespeare in Love,
Lee Hall's adaptation of the 1998 film co-scripted by Tom Stoppard and
Marc Norman. At the same time, Roberts had just begun rehearsals in the
title role of Macbeth, in a radical new production by Filter, the
company which Roberts co-founded and is one of its three co-directors.
Where Shakespeare in Love is shot through with glossy West End values,
Filter's Macbeth is a looser-knit and infinitely more playful affair,
which exploits the play's frequent references to sound by allowing
proceedings to be led by music in a way the company have previously
done on Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream. In Macbeth, the
action is led by the three Weird Sisters, who operate a series of
home-made electronic instruments, effectively conducting the action as
they invite Macbeth to join them, thus sealing his fate.
“We wanted to do something completely different,” says Roberts during a
brief lunch-break. “I've always been fascinated by Macbeth because of
there being so many references to sound, and we wanted to look at the
psychological journey of Macbeth rather than looking at him as a
“Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, and that fits our
language. We've always had this keen sense of anarchy, but I'm also
keen to respect the text. Shakespeare's plays can take pretty much
anything you throw at them within reason, and we wanted to concentrate
on the psychology of the characters, because that makes the play all
the more terrifying.
“For the Weird Sisters, for instance, we knew we didn't want them to be
all oogly-boogly and weird, and what we discovered is that the more
neutral and everyday you make them, the scarier they become. There are
more than three of them, anyway, because the Weird Sisters are the
band, and two or three of them are played by blokes, so that creates a
bit of a departure as well.”
Roberts took over the role of Macbeth after his fellow Filter director
Oliver Dimsdale, who played the part during the company's 2014 run of
the production in Bristol, took time out for paternity duties. The show
was created quickly by a cast of seven, with composer and regular
Filter collaborator Tom Haines playing a vital part.
“We've approached the play in terms of each character having a musical
theme, or leitmotiv, if you will,” says Haines. “The audience is
hopefully helped along by having these themes, which illustrate a facet
of a character or their journey, and which will also hopefully help to
illustrate the story.
“None of the instruments we use are acoustic, and nothing is recorded,
although a lot of stuff is recorded live and manipulated as we go on
these three custom-built synthesisers which the Weird Sisters use to
enchant Macbeth. One of the instruments is made of a large coil of
springs that makes this rumbling sound, and there's a home-made
theremin that doubles as a radio receiver.
“Using music and sound to tell a story is a bit like saying a diagram
is worth a thousand words. You can cut an entire page of dialogue and
tell something with just a look and three seconds of music. It's
blindingly obvious what's going on, and it can be a lot more
interesting than having a lot of expositional dialogue.”
For Roberts, while this approach is key to Filter's aesthetic, he
admits that the text has sometimes resisted it.
“When I was the outside eye when we did the play last year, I was more
interested in steering the actors down the path of less is more in
terms of the language,” he says. “They would tell me how difficult it
was not saying things out loud, and I would tell them that, no, it's
great. Now I'm in the play, I'm like, ah, I see what you mean.”
One of the things Roberts and Haines hope to bring out of Filter's
Macbeth is some of the play's rarely explored comedy.
“Macbeth is potentially quite an amusing story,” Haines points out.
“There's a lot of dark humour in there in some of the ridiculous
situations that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are thrown into. They're
absolutely barking mad, all of them, and there are lots of awkward
situations that make for some silly moments. It's also bloody good fun
telling a spooky story, and without humour you can't have darkness.”
“When we started work on it, we asked people not to refer to Macbeth as
a tragedy,” he says, “and that really freed things up. You can often
get lost in the darkness of the play, and never be engaged by it, but
we wanted to find ways of embracing the audience in the way that
Shakespeare did when his company just rocked up without any scenery or
lighting and just did it. It was a modern form of playwriting then, and
we want to treat it as if it's a new play now.
“We've had lots of arguments over the years with people who think we're
just updating Shakespeare for the sake of it, but we're not. We want to
challenge our audiences, some of whom might think Shakespeare is too
academic, but it's not and never was. Shakespeare was writing for an
audience made up of a lot of people who were illiterate, so he had to
reach out to them.”
Next up for Filter is a devised piece, a western, with the working
title, Guns and Gold. Scheduled for 2016, the production will see the
company work with former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare
Company and the Tron Theatre, Michael Boyd, on a script by David Greig.
In the meantime, Filter's Macbeth looks set to irk the purists even as
it stays true to the play's populist spirit.
“On one level it's an unconventional production,” says Haines, “but we
try to stay true to what we believe the story to be. It's a group of
actors and musicians trying to tell an audience a story, and that's
true to what happened in Shakespeare's time, only rather than turning
up on a horse and cart, we've got a white van and some speakers.”
Filter's Macbeth, January 20-31.
Filter – Reinventing The Classics
Filter were formed in 2003 by actors Oliver Dimsdale and Ferdy Roberts
and composer Tim Phillips, and produced their debut show, Faster, the
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 have produced two Shakespeare plays prior to Macbeth; A
Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night. Both were directed by Sean
Holmes, who has also collaborated with Filter on versions of other
classic plays, including Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle
and Chekhov's Three Sisters.
Filter's Macbeth was first seen at The Tobacco Factory, Bristol, who
are co-producers of this current tour.
The Herald, January 13th 2015