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Ferdy Roberts On ... Filter-ing Shakespeare's Dream

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Award-winning Filter theatre company is known for its alternative and contemporary interpretations of classic texts. The company’s current production, {A Midsummer Night's Dream::L02021454461}, is currently running at the Lyric Hammersmith (until 17 March).

Here, Ferdy Roberts, one of Filter's three artistic directors (along with Ollie Dimsdale and Tim Phillips), talks to Whatsonstage.com about the inspiration behind the acclaimed production, which is directed by Sean Holmes, and why Shakespeare continues to be relevant.

Ferdy Roberts: We’ve worked with Sean Holmes quite a lot on classic texts, which is very different from the devised work we create like Water, Silence, and our first show Faster. It’s an entirely different piece altogether, obviously, because there’s a text. The way that we devise and create our own work is with a lot of musical instruments and keyboards and synthesisers, or what seems to be chaos in the room.

Years ago, we did a workshop at the National studio playing around with an idea that was potentially going to turn into a devised piece. At the end of the three weeks, Sean suggested we play around with text just to see what happens. He randomly chose Twelfth Night and after playing around with it for two hours it sort of released some sort of anarchy and freedom within the play itself. And then that obviously turned into a show that we developed with the RSC and Sean, which attracted almost a cult following.

Sean then came to us 18 months ago with an idea to do another Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We didn’t really want to do it since it’s been done so many times, but we thought that’s part of the reason to have a look at it. So we originally created it for the Latitude Festival. We used the same model as we did with Twelfth Night, which is to challenge ourselves and see what we can put together in a week from scratch. So all the sound and music and everything is written in the room with the actors over the course of a week. Because of the time pressure, it made us make bold and strong decisions very quickly and stick with them.

We then revisited it last year and looked at the stuff that didn’t work, but also created new material. We then took out a tour at the end of last year and developed it more and solidified the bold decisions we had made, of which there are quite a few.

We knew we were going to do the tour and did a week of development on it here at the Lyric. We performed it for one night only for an invited audience just to get feedback and response, which is vital to our work. The feedback was quite extraordinary. A lot of people said for the first time it felt fresh to them and felt like a new play, that it was the first time they were really hearing the play as if it were written yesterday. When you only have a week to put it in front of an audience, you don’t really know what you’ve got. That’s the most exciting part of being with this ensemble, really. Everybody has to get together, stick together, trust each other and basically have a bit of fun.

Working with sound and design

Use of sound is always a trademark, or certainly something that we work with a lot; it allows us to fill in a lot of gaps. Fairies, for example, can be played by musicians through manipulation of the voice. So using an eight-strong cast doesn’t mean we’ve smashed the play to pieces, it’s just that with the use of sound and sound design with composers and musicians we can play around creating different landscapes.

Tom Haines and Chris Branch are both ridiculously clever, slightly geeky theatre computer guys who write their own programs and create everything live on stage every night. We’ve also got the band members acting in it, as well. So the band members are the mechanicals, if you like. It seems to work quite well, or it has been so far.

Because we knew about performing at the Lyric, which is a big and beautiful theatre, we wanted to focus it a lot more. If we’re playing with keyboards and a couple of electric guitars, they can easily get lost in such a big venue. It became quite difficult to reach and talk to the audience directly without losing focus. So we decided that we’d approach the Linbury Prize this year and work with a young designer (Hyemi Shin) whose approach hasn’t necessarily been changed by the industry yet.

Part of the reason we’ve always wanted to work like that is because both Ollie Dimsdale and myself, who are artistic directors with Tim, are actors. We’ve both worked outside of Filter and know the normal way of designing a show is that a designer and a director will go away and come up with a concept before day one and then they’ll go into the rehearsal room and present the idea. You’re slightly going ‘all the decisions have been made, I just have to work my way around getting involved in the concept.’ We didn’t want the actors to impose something upon the nature of the process. We wanted the process to start from day one with everybody in the room so everybody feels like they have a shared responsibility for the end product, which is quite unusual.

It’s kind of a new thing for Filter, certainly with the classic text work, that we’ve chosen to have a designer. We’ve worked with Jon Bausor before on our devised work, but that process is with Jon in the room from the very beginning. The designs of the shows sort of grew with the show itself as it was being written and created, so the designs are very much part of the world that we were discussing and exploring in the rehearsal room. Whereas this time, we’ve got a designer that has seen a show that exists and has to create a world that comes out of what we’ve already created.

Hyemi saw the show and her first response was that it didn’t need a design, which is why we went with her because that’s actually a really good starting point. Sean and the company worked with her and we’ve developed a design that is sort of a playpen for the band and for us. Hyemi has sort of noted the energy within the company and the group, which is playful and anarchic. It’s a fun evening; we’ve discovered that people have come away in fits of laughter and seem to be having a great time .

Shakespeare's robustness

Before we attacked Twelfth Night, I thought we should leave him alone, bury Shakespeare for 20 years and create our own new work. But when we started working on Twelfth Night, we changed our views. There are so many references from Shakespeare’s time that are still relevant today. And his writing is so robust and malleable, it challenges people in very exciting ways. The debates people have when they leave the theatre are vital and hugely important.

I think maybe we revere him too much. And we’re slightly scared of playing with it and ripping it apart and digging deeper than ‘oh, his language is really pretty and beautiful.’ What we wanted the actors to do was speak as if it’s their own language. Make it their own, get to the heart of it. And suddenly you find that these people are real.

With the way we’ve been doing Shakespeare, we involve the audience a lot and I think if we can surprise an audience they’ll think it’s the first time they’ve heard this language. It’s not, obviously, but we’re not playing it in the sort of classical, traditional way of speaking Shakespeare. It’s very robust, it’s direct to the audience and takes you on a huge journey and doesn’t really give you time to think. He moves you along very quickly and, what I think is important is that he wasn’t writing for the academic world at the time. It is believed that 95% of his audience would have been illiterate. So his plays are entertaining as well, they are an entertainment. They ought to be performed and witnessed and enjoyed, which is why I think it is still relevant. They are just brilliant - simple as that. They really are amazing plays and there’s always something new in them to find.

- Ferdy Roberts was speaking to Andrew Girvan


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