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Review: Twelfth Night @ Birmingham Rep

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Filter’s attempts at Shakespeare seem to flip-flap between the tremendous and the terrible. Their 2012 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, recently revived at the Lyric Hammermith, was gloriously witty and palpably uplifting. Their 2014 production of Macbeth was abstract to the point of tedium. Happily, their 90-minute interpretation of Twelfth Night, dragged up from the depths of the late 2000s when it was originally produced with the RSC, is of the former’s ilk. Its barefaced mash-up of live experimental music and rollicking Shakespearean farce is consistently funny, and if it loses something of its poignancy in the mayhem in the chaos, this is more than made up for by the free slices of pizza and, for the lucky few, complimentary tequila slammers.

With typical brutality, Filter have dispensed with all ornament and elaboration. They perform on an undecorated stage littered with the wires, keyboards and laptops with which they construct their ethereal soundscape. Illyria, it seems, is a recording studio. All are clothed in unremarkable contemporary clothing, apart from Dan Poole’s Sir Toby Belch, who staggers about the stage in traditional dress with a can of lager in his hand, a burp in his throat, and a pitiable Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Harry Jardine) at his heels. Amy Marchant, as the shipwrecked Viola seeking to disguise herself as a boy, has to borrow a jacket and flat-cap from the audience before she enters the service of Orsino (Jardine again).

As with much of Filter’s work, imagination is everywhere, from simple playfulness with the text, to full-blown translation of some scenes into song; Belch and Aguecheek’s drunken cavorting outside the house of Olivia (Olivia Darnley), Orsino’s mourning beloved, is a slowly escalating riot of singing, dancing, audience participation and free food. Even the traditionalists, while reluctantly clapping along, will realise that there is something pure and authentic in the sheer, exhilarating fun of it all.

Ferdy Roberts’ head-banging, heavy metal-loving, Rickman-esque Malvolio can’t, though. Roberts, who co-directs this updated production as well, captures the austerity and haughtiness of Olivia’s detestable steward well and is unspeakably funny in his cross-gartered yellow stockings, writhing and grinding around the stage. He might do more to engender the audience’s guilt when his arrogant bubble is mercilessly pierced by Belch and Aguecheek, but there will never be a time when the line “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”, when mockingly delivered for a third and final time by Feste (Crystal Condie), does not stir such inexorable pity.

As 2016’s relentless bardolatry continues – this was this reviewer’s ninth different Shakespeare since January – the tide of new productions, new exhibitions, and new Radio 4 documentaries does begin to wear. Filter’s sensuous, highly original Twelfth Night is a breath of fresh air. It sweeps away pretence, revels in its own audacity, and manages to be quite hilarious at times too. It might lose the thread of Shakespeare’s play in its bells and whistles – a perennial problem with Filter’s work – but it has a great time trying to find it again.

4/5

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