Filter was founded in 2003 by Roberts, Oliver Dimsdale and the musician Tim Philips. From the outset music and the use of sound have played a vital role in the company’s work. “Our remit as a company has always been that music and theatre go hand in hand in order to try and tell the story. One doesn’t lead the other and one isn’t plonked on at the end as part of the technical rehearsal.” Music plays a key part of the devising process; it’s a means of getting into the heads of their characters and externalising things that are internal and unvoiced. Roberts describes an exercise they have for moments when, as performers, they’re struggling with their roles. One of the musicians will take a microphone and “place it on your head” before creating whatever noise they think is going on inside the character’s mind. This technique was particularly helpful to Roberts when he was playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Together they pictured Malvolio “standing alone in front of his mirror and imagining himself playing to 100,000 fans at Wembley.” From this psychologically pleasing image Roberts was able to shape his performance.
“We never go into a room with a concept,” Roberts continues. “We never start out by saying we’re going to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in 1960s Brighton.” The various strands of the show all come together in the rehearsal room; everything they do, everything the piece becomes, is born there. The rehearsal process becomes “an exercise in problem solving. It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.”
Filter is two-pronged in terms of the work it produces. As well as their interpretations of classic texts, which also include a staging of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 2010, the company produces work of their own devising. Their very first production, Faster, was conceived in this way, as were their later pieces, Water and Silence. The creative process differs considerably when they’re not working from an existing text. Often their devised productions can stem from a single idea, “a particular memory or image.” Their 2007 show Water, Roberts explains, came about following “a very simple discussion that Tim, Olly and myself were having en route to Edinburgh.” They’d stopped off at Roberts’ mother’s house and were enjoying a beer by the sea. This “broke Tim’s memory of being by the sea with his dad. We realised we all had similar memories of being with our fathers and being by the sea.” From this initial seed came Water, a piece about “fathers and sons and legacies.” Having started with that one image, they “went and created four or five stories that all stemmed from this one simple idea.”
Their 2011 show, Silence, was inspired by their relationship with Skorik. He “was very passionate about us being responsible for our voices as artists. We became interested in this idea of artists being silenced.”
The process of shaping their devised work is a long one when compared to their text based work. Both Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were “originally created over a week which forces you to make very bold decisions very quickly.”
Their current production sees them reteaming with regular collaborator Sean Holmes, the Lyric’s artistic director. Their creative relationship began when Holmes was working at the RSC. Roberts had worked with Holmes in the past so when they were developing a new project at the National Studio, they “suggested he come and mess about in a room with us for a few weeks.” Holmes found the change in methods challenging but thrilling. “We’ve always been interested in working with directors who don’t necessarily lead from the director’s chair; we’d prefer they respond to what the actors and musicians give in the room. I think Sean found that really liberating.” Then they decided to see if their “process would work well with text. We played around with Twelfth Night.” It’s a bold statement, concedes Roberts, but Holmes “felt that we’d got closer to the anarchy and spirit of Shakespeare” in that short space of time than he’d been able to during his stint with the RSC.
Filter’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be at the Lyric Hammersmith from 11th February to 17th March 2012. For tickets and further information visit the Lyric website.