Oliver Dimsdale, artistic director, Filter theatre on turning around a 400-year-old script and using a music and sound to keep the theatre experience live
- Why is the production staged almost like a rehearsal? Why is it so minimal on stage?
When we made the show we only had 10 days to rehearse it, and a limited amount of money. This limited us to a smaller number of actors and meant that we didn’t have the budget for an expensive set. That’s why we have double roles with some actors.
“If music be the food of love, play on” is the first line of Twelfth Night. The play is about every form of love, and we interpreted that in as many forms of music and song too. We knew we were going to work with music and sound, the text, and the actors, so why make it any more than that?
If there is a design, or a concept behind the rehearsal aesthetic of the show, it is that there is a band on stage. They are Orsino’s band, helping him to find that ‘strain’ that unlocks the key to Olivia’s heart. They are also the band in Olivia’s household – Feste’s band perhaps. In that respect all we need is the equipment that a band has.
- How did the idea of ‘Filter’s Twelfth Night’ come about?
We got invited to go and be part of the RSC’s Complete Works after we’d performed Caucasian Chalk Circle for the National Theatre London, and they offered us a full rehearsal period. We said we’d like to approach Twelfth Night. Because there was no pressure on us, we were only going to do three performances up in Stratford for their Complete Works Festival and it was a tiny little footnote in the big, grand programme of the RSC.
Twelfth Night’s definitely Shakespeare’s most lyrical play and Sean Holmes (the director) suggested that we use the Filter process to free ourselves of the shackles that can plague more traditional Shakespeare productions. The ethos was really ‘Let’s chuck the play into the room, add sound designers and brilliant actors and a me, and let’s just see what comes out of the process’, and sure enough sometimes when you’re using the gut and the heart instead of the head for inspiration, irreverent, interesting and dynamic things can come out of it.
- You started off with six actors. How did you go about casting it and making those decisions?
A couple of suggested doublings from Sean were brilliant. The Fool and Maria (a double) both have huge vendettas against Malvolio and have good reasons to want to exact a revenge so at the point at which you see the Fool putting the nose on Malvolio at the end, there are echoes of Maria’s revenge as well in laying the letter down.
Andrew Aguecheek and Orsino (again, a double) are both in love with the same woman, so there were many echoes which was the point. And the Viola/ Sebastian double is obviously a very tricky double, but we think it adds a really lovely ambiguity and innuendo, a ‘ménage à trois’ going on with all these people that are chasing one person.
- What is the significance of using so many microphones and sound technology?
In our production of Twelfth Night we use the natural voice, the amplified voice (microphones), the distorted voice (reverberated through use of a ‘memory man’ distortion machine), and a pre-recorded voice (i.e. the Shipping Forecast on the radio).
Sound is very important to Filter, though very often not central to many other theatre productions, where it’s very often tacked on to the end of a rehearsal process. Filter shows have sound design and music at the very heart of the action on stage because we work very closely with sound designers and composers.
If you show the sound being created on stage, we think it frees the audience to think beyond the boundaries of theatre, whereas if you simply hear sound effects or music on stage whilst not seeing where and who is creating it, it feels like you are trying to con the audience that the play, or the scene, is happening in a particular period or environment.
In Filter shows there is always a playfulness and an honestly about the relationship between the actor, the story and the sound designer on-stage that we believe is an exciting ‘live’ aspect to theatre. It’s about keeping the experience of theatre as live as possible, not always so pre-recorded, or second-hand.
- Why does the actor playing Sir Toby Belch wear traditional Elizabethan costume?
The idea came from when I originally played Sir Toby 10 years ago. When we’d done the first performance, I’d been sitting around on stage, like the rest of the cast, in jeans and a T-shirt, and it just didn’t seem to work for me personally, as well as with Belch being an anarchic whirlwind who is constantly disrupting Olivia’s household, causing mayhem.
So I took myself off to the RSC Costume department and fitted myself in a clichéd Elizabethan doublet and hose, and ruff. Nobody else knew about this, and no one on stage knew what I was going to do. I made sure I had a can of Special Brew (beer) and there was food hidden everywhere around the stage. During the performance I entered and exited the stage whenever I wanted to during the scenes.
We wanted to get away from the cliched portrayal of Belch. We wanted him to be real – as real as possible – by having a young Sir Toby Belch dressed in doublet and hose searching for alcohol, to embrace what the character is about. He’s desperately looking for the next drink to forget his woes.”
The really interesting thing about the experiment was that not only was it demonstrating the destructive element in Belch with Olivia’s household, but there was also the notion of there being the remnants of this 400-year-old text that we were speaking and that this is the way that it was done originally but with a bit of a twist because he’s got a can of Special Brew and he’s genuinely drunk.
The play is about the madness and wonder of love. Every character is in love with, or loved by, another character, in many different ways. It is also his most lyrical play, and hence the amount of different types of music in our show.
- Where do you draw the line between interpretation and adaptation when approaching Twelfth Night?
The play is called Twelfth Night, or What You Will, and the production draws inspiration from both the title and the subtitle. We interpret and adapt from the original, but never at the expense of the robust emotional heart of Shakespeare’s play. The first version of the production was a response to Twelfth Night, and in many ways that’s what it still is, but we are actually incredibly faithful to the linear structure of Shakespeare’s original play.
This post was contributed by Oliver Dimsdale, artistic director, Filter Theatre. Find out about Twelfth Night tour dates in your city.