Filter’s lively, anarchic take on Twelfth Night is a riotous experience, packed full of clever, modern touches, squarely aimed at making Shakespeare more immediate and accessible. This is a world where major news is delivered via mobile phones and updates on the radio, where Toby Belch drinks Carlsberg Special Brew and wanders about quoting Hamlet, and where a stranded Viola begs her male disguise from members of the audience (“There’s no valuables in here, is there?” she asks someone, before nabbing their jacket.)
The bare bones of Shakespeare’s plot remain, but director Sean Holmes has stripped it back and shaken it up, so we spend far more time focused on the characters’ comic antics than we do on the complications of the play’s central pairings. There’s little room for anything more than the most basic of characterisation and there’s also more than a whiff of pantomime to the production, enjoyment of which will be dictated by your tolerance for such shenanigans. The audience are encouraged to pitch fuzzy balls at Aguecheek’s Velcro hat, form a giant conga line and dance onto the stage, and join the performers in eating pizza and necking tequila shots, in an energetic interlude that was (tequila shots aside) squarely pitched to – and enthusiastically received by – the younger members of the audience, though the novelty soon wore thin for those of us less keen on audience participation.
Given the breakneck pace and this focus on comic hijinks, it’s perhaps inevitable that the main plot gets somewhat side- lined. Jonathan Broadbent, while hugely entertaining as the drunken Aguecheek, makes for a rather bland Orsino, a distinction perhaps summed up by the fact that he differentiates between the characters by having Orsino sip a cup of tea. There is also little in the way of chemistry between Sarah Belcher – fine as she is as the disguised Viola and, later, Sebastian – and either her would-be wife or the man she would make her husband, and the finale, where she plays both Viola and Sebastian with little more than a change in vocal tone, falls slightly flat. Liz Fitzgibbon’s Olivia, however, is a delight, wonderfully deadpan in her disdain for Orsino but blatant in her lust for his ‘man’ servant. Her musical scenes have the deliberately masturbatory quality of bottled up feminine frustration and, while they’re sometimes played for crude laughs, we are squarely on her side: it’s a refreshing portrayal of uncompromising female desire.
The ensemble cast work well together. Geoffrey Lumb’s Toby Belch is suitably larger than life, with Natasha Broomfield a no-nonsense co-conspirator, doing double duty as Maria and a red-nosed Feste. Fergus O’Donnell is a splendidly creepy Malvolio, preening and strutting, his supercilious arrogance allowing him to fall for an obvious gull. It is perhaps his fate, though, that most clearly hints at the dual nature of the production: when he strips down to his ‘yellow stockings’, left only in his socks and a pair of tiny, shiny gold shorts worthy of a Kylie Minogue video, it is played for maximum laughs, but there are hints at a creeping darkness. Later, bound, blindfolded and kneeling nearly naked as he is tormented by loud music and unseen jailors, it’s hard to avoid uneasy comparison to images of Abu Ghraib, and this makes his plight far more pitiable than it is funny, almost uncomfortable to watch.
It is this shadow side to the production that, despite all the ball games, the booze and the funny hats, stops the piece from feeling like a Saturday morning kids TV show, the cast reduced to inane presenters begging us to join in. For all the superficial silliness of the piece, Filter understands both the dark heart of the play – and the power of music to evoke that darkness. Folk music often walks the tightrope between tragedy and comedy, and here the songs veer between the raucous and the melancholy, a tribute to cheerful chaos but also a lament for love lost, a recognition of the undercurrent of grief that underpins the narrative. There’s an unsettling element layered deep beneath the laughter, and it’s this that stays with you; the production is all the stronger for it.