If you’re planning to do Shakespeare, you pretty much have two choices: you can play it straight, like the admirable King Lear currently coming to the end of its run at the Royal Exchange, Manchester – or you can ‘do something completely different with it.’ Filter’s production of Twelfth Night certainly fits into the latter category. I mean, when else have you seen a production of the play that includes an audience-participatory game of Butt Head half way through… a production where a lively conga line of dancing audience members is interrupted by the delivery of hot pizza? This is Shakespeare taken to the very edge, reshaped, remodelled and radically stripped back. Mostly it works well.
As you take your seats it’s clear that this isn’t going to be the usual relaxed evening at the theatre. The stage is pretty much filled by musicians and as the play begins, the house lights are left on, the better to involve the audience. Orsino (Harry Jardine) strolls on and puts the band through its musical paces, before launching into ‘If music be the food of love,’ and then we’re off at a sprint, because this is ninety minutes of energetic action with barely a pause for breath. (It helps if you have at least a working knowledge of the original play, because there’s not much here in the way of set-up.) Much of the text is delivered in the form of punky songs, actors conflate characters (Jardine plays both Orsino and Aguecheek) and some of the sub plots are simply thrown out with the bathwater.
Mind you, it’s not all gimmicks. Dan Poole gives a roistering interpretation of Sir Toby Belch, as a hapless drunkard clutching a carrier bag full of lager cans and Ferdy Roberts is a splendid Malvolio, whose transformation from a stiff-backed martinet into a yellow-stocking clad degenerate is one of the evening’s highlights. I loved the fact that Viola (Amy Marchant) borrowed her male disguise from a bloke in the audience and her interplay with a radio weather forecaster was great fun.
As you might expect with something as freeform as this, not everything in the performance is perfect. The regular recourse to the use of a tiny speaker to distort some of the actors voices occasionally makes it hard to understand what’s actually being said and one of the extended comic routines between Belch and Aguecheek goes on rather too long for comfort, even though it comes good in the end. While I don’t fully agree with Philomena Cunk’s assertion – ‘If you go to watch a Shakespeare comedy today, you’ll hear the audience laughing as though there are jokes in there, even though there definitely aren’t.’ – I understand exactly what she’s driving at. Happily, this isn’t the case here. Indeed, I can’t remember the last time I laughed quite so much at the Bard of Stratford (apart from a Macbeth I saw back in the day where the titular hero accidentally chinned himself with the handle of his broadsword).
My only regret? I should have gone on stage for one of those free shots of tequila. Now that’s something you don’t usually get to say in these circumstances! Twelfth Night is on at Home, Manchester until the 14th May, then moves on to the Theatre Royal Plymouth from the 16th to the 21st May.