The Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night is described in publicity material as a “radically-cut, fast-paced version of Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy where classical verse meets riotous gig,” which I think sums it up pretty well. One is inclined, however, to pay more attention to “radically-cut”, although to assume that this show is merely a shortened, “accessible” version of Shakespeare (a performative plot summary) would be to do it a serious injustice. Certainly, substantial sections of the text are cut and the cast of six embody only the nine essential characters, with messengers and roles such as the ship captain transformed into disembodied intercom interjections and what seems to be a BBC shipping report, underlining the essentially expository function of these characters. Other, non-textual elements are, however, delightfully extended in ways that invite that dangerous assertion that it remains true to “the spirit of the play.”
The NYU Skirball Center is a large auditorium with the distinct ambience of an institution. The Filter Theatre foregoes any ornamentation of this rather unpromising space; the back wall of the stage is exposed and the stage itself holds not even the suggestion of a set, only the musicians’ desks, chairs, and speakers (strewn with the ubiquitous water bottle of rehearsals, and other mundane paraphernalia), while the houselights are kept on throughout. Before a word is spoken, the musicians strike up with a frenzied variety of funk/electronic/rock that is far from the usual gentle strains that typically open productions of Twelfth Night. When the music stops, Harry Jardine as Orsino embraces our over-familiarity with the opening line by seeming to search for words; on the night I attended (and, I expect, at all performances), his “If music be the food of… the food of…” was impulsively met by “love!” from at least one audience member.
A show that can provoke such unselfconscious interaction from the audience within the first five minutes is clearly on to something. This was certainly not the last such interaction. Viola’s manly disguise was provided by a jacket and hat from audience members, while others lured onstage by an infectious conga line provided a convincing party for Malvolio to break up, the pizza they had only moments before been given unceremoniously snatched from their hands. Audience interaction can be cringe-worthy, but as someone who at times feels resistant to prompts to clap along, I found myself happily booing Malvolio and reflecting that yes, this is how Shakespeare’s audiences presumably behaved (the new Globe does stand as some testament to that also)—this despite a tongue-in-cheek reprimand that “this isn’t a pantomime – this is Shakespeare!”
There is some – dare I say it – authenticity too in the clowning. Filter Theatre may specialize in short, fast takes on the classics, but they are not afraid to draw out a gag. Hamlet may not approve, but the little girl along the row from me was beside herself at Sir Toby Belch’s (Dan Poole) attempts to quiet his amplified footsteps. Dan Poole is certainly a highlight as the drunken Sir Toby who, in a nice metatheatrical touch, is the only character in semi-Shakespearean garb, repeatedly attempting to quote from other Shakespeare plays. Fergus O’Donnell’s Malvolio is similarly in danger of stealing the show when he pursues Olivia through the audience in The Filter Theatre’s version of cross gartered yellow stockings (gold underpants and yellow rugby socks—nothing else). Amy Marchant as Viola/Sebastian and Ronke Adekoluejo as Olivia are more subdued, but exhibit a nice sincerity, while Sandy Foster as Feste/Maria displays her unquestionable acting skill. The spirit of ensemble dominates, however, and this extends to the musicians (Alan Pagan and Fred Thomas) and Stage Manager (Christie DuBois), onstage for the duration.
The assumption is that the audience know the play and there is potential for confusion for those who don’t. Even for those who do, the final doubling of Viola and Sebastian causes some initial bafflement. The love plots, too, become almost secondary. Viola’s moving defense of woman’s capacity to love is a little lost in the noise, and so we also lose something of the joy in the moment when she finally becomes her master’s mistress. The denouement overall is the weakest aspect of this production. The necessity of wrapping everything up seems in conflict with The Filter Theatre’s desire to keep playing their strong suits of gags and high energy music, which ironically causes the final moments to lag, and undercuts the emotional satisfaction that Shakespeare’s conclusion should produce.
By this point, however, the ensemble has created such a warm rapport with the audience that we will cheer them along in almost anything. It is interesting to consider The Filter Theatre’s work in the context of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s commissioning of playwrights to produce “translated texts in contemporary modern English,” which has generated reactions ranging from skeptical to outraged. The Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night successfully breaks free of the overly-respectful restraints that hamper many a Shakespeare production, but in stepping beyond a timid updating and wildly riffing off Shakespeare’s work, they succeed in distilling at least certain highlights into a fresh and modern show that need not offend the most ardent Shakespeare fan.
Twelfth Night was on at NYU Skirball Centre. Click here for more of their programme.