Aurality and the Actor in Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night

Sarah McCourt*


This article explores the relationship between aurality and the actor in Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night. It explores how Filter’s collaborative process and focus on resolving staging problems sonically creates a productive interplay between visual, embodied and aural modes of performance. It also considers how the productive tension created between musicians and actors in this performance space invites the audience to imaginatively collude with Filter’s playful engagements with the affective and disruptive potential of sound.

Keywords: Aurality, Filter Theatre, Shakespeare, music, liveness, gig theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, devising

Founded in 2003 by actors Oliver Dimsdale and Ferdy Roberts, with musician Tim Phillips, Filter Theatre has developed an approach to theatre-making that includes musicians and sound designers as equal creators within the rehearsal process. As Roberts explained, this was inspired by their undergraduate training at Guildhall School of Music and Drama:

the music and the drama never really came together to work together, they do now, but they didn’t when we were there and we thought it was a bit of a waste really so we decided that we wanted to work with musicians and wanted music and sound to be as important in the creation of the story as much as the spoken word is and the physical relationships of the actors. . . .

Dimsdale and Roberts 1

Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company for their Complete Works Season in 2006, Filter’s approach created a Twelfth Night that was part gig and part theatre, in which sound was an active rather than supportive element of the performance. The requirement for sound and music is already integral to many of Shakespeare’s texts, as Susan Bennett’s case study of Shakespeare’s The Tempest explores. Here, she notes a variety of uses from suggesting environment and mood to taking an active role in organising the action, such as Ariel leading Ferdinand to his meeting with Miranda in Act 1 Scene 2 (42–43). Bennett’s discussion of the opening storm as prefiguring the character’s own upheavals and the way in which sound is used to underpin relationships between characters suggests it is also intimately bound up with the character’s psychological journeys. This intricate aural world, combined with an increased focus on sound design in performances of Shakespeare’s plays (Curtin 152), has stimulated interest in Filter Theatre’s work as one of the few companies outside the RSC and National Theatre to place sound and music consistently at the heart of its work on classic texts (Curtin 159–66; Roesner 240–47; Taylor 5–6).

Directed by Sean Holmes and developed using their collaborative approach to devising which aims to create a “live chemistry between actors, audience, text and sound” (Schtanhaus 1), Filter Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night created an aural battlefield: an invisible but physically experienced space in which the conflicts between the characters were played out. This article focuses on the relationship between actor and aurality within the production, exploring how Filter’s collaborative process and focus on resolving staging problems sonically creates a productive interplay between visual, embodied and aural modes of performance. It also considers how the productive tension created between musicians and actors in this performance space invites the audience to imaginatively collude with Filter’s playful engagements with the affective and disruptive potential of sound.

Since its original commission, Filter’s Twelfth Night has subsequently been altered and revived for a number of tours across England and Europe between 2007 and 2010 (“Twelfth Night/Show”). In this article, I will therefore focus on the Victoria and Albert Museum’s recording of the matinee performance on September 25, 2008, at the Tricycle Theatre, as an example of the completed production (Twelfth Night).

Visual Aurality

Key to foregrounding the relationships between actors, audience and sound was the setup of the stage which was more reminiscent of a gig than a play, with the sound equipment and instruments arranged in a semi-circle around a central performance space as in the photograph below. Seated around the edge of the performance space with which they shared the same light, the work of the musicians and technician as well as the actors, who also contributed to music numbers and sound effects when not in role, was clearly visible throughout. As Roberts revealed, this decision was both pragmatic, “because we had no money,” and artistic:

we also wanted the musicians to be visible and the sound to be visible, we didn’t enjoy the idea that music and sound is more often than not just triggered by the stage manager in the box behind the audience and we wanted to expose that a little bit. . . .

Dimsdale and Roberts 1
Twelfth Night (performers Syreeta Kumar, Poppy Miller and Jonathan Broadbent). Photo: Tristram Kenton

By making the musicians visible, the performance of sound became a focus. During his opening speech in Act 1, Scene 1, Orsino (Jonathan Broadbent) leads the actors and musicians in an extended experimental jazz sequence, played on an eclectic range of instruments, including a sound desk and two game controllers. Composer Dieter Schnebel’s work in the 1950s on the visual expression of music in performance notes an inherent theatricality in the gestures involved in creating sound (284).

In Filter’s production, the musicians’ performances on bass guitar and drums preserved this link between gesture and sound. However, there was a notable difference in the actor’s use of game controllers, where the link between production and sound had been broken by the recording process. Philip Auslander observes in his work on liveness that the interdependency of the liveness and mediatisation enables the technological production to become an integral part of the live experience through the way in which it is performed (53–54). Without the means to reproduce the gestures on the controllers that composed the phrases, Poppy Miller and Ferdy Roberts created a visual echo of the aural experience by moving the controllers up and down in response to the rise and fall of the notes, merging the live and mediatised in an illusory productive act. As Schnebel recognised, “the visible aspect added to the acoustic by the performance is achieved when the instrumental action deviates from the ordinary and becomes worth watching” (284). As a spectator, I found that the novelty of this illusory performance of music-making became the focal point of the sequence.

Filter’s invitations to the audience to imaginatively collude in the illusion of visual and aural correlation foregrounded the tussle for sonic control throughout the performance. In a playful sequence built around Sir Toby (Oliver Dimsdale) attempting to enter quietly at the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3, he is foiled in his attempt to cross silently to the microphone centre stage by a musician who, in the manner of a Foley artist, created amplified footsteps in real time to match his steps. Sir Toby’s performance of tiptoeing, and at one point walking to the edge of the stage where the footsteps stopped, invited the audience to collude in the illusion. By pausing to shush the musician, and acknowledging the actual sound source, he broke the illusion which created a comic friction between the double performance of visual and aural signifiers. This enabled the audience to enjoy the performative skill of the musician and, by association, the liveness of the theatre event as the musician ignored Sir Toby’s shush.

Filter is not alone in experimenting with the performance of sound in this way. John Collins’s discussion of the Wooster Group’s Brace Up (1990), and his own work on Target Margin Theatre’s Titus Andronicus (1991) and the Wooster Group’s The Hairy Ape (1994), emphasises the degree of focus upon, and knowledge of, the actor’s performance needed to create such illusions (23–29). This, Collins argues, requires an interplay between the actor and sound designer that involves both in an act of performance (25). Many of Filter’s staging solutions are predicated on this reciprocity between musicians and actors which, in turn, creates space for imaginative collusion between audience and performers.

Sonic Problem-Solving

Filter began their process with Steve Gooch’s pre-cut version of the script, making additional cuts to meet the requirements of their small cast and reinstating the songs. Dimsdale explained that using Gooch’s script as an intermediary between Shakespeare’s text and Filter’s adaptation “gave us a licence not to be too textually obsessed and just to get on with telling the story in an interesting way” (Dimsdale and Roberts 9). This focus on performative rather than textual storytelling, together with finding sonic solutions to staging, created an adaptation that significantly pared down Shakespeare’s text. Responding to theatre critic Fiona Mountford’s concern that Filter’s production had replaced Shakespeare’s text with “a jam session,” Co-Artistic Director Tim Phillips commented: “[i]f you truly have passion for this writer you need to logically recognise that his sentiment was infinite; his medium transient” (Philips). These very different appeals to fidelity are rooted in the cultural politics that surround Shakespeare’s canonical status and the production of his work (Kidnie 11–31; Worthen 1–43).

Mountford’s comparison of the performance to its source seeks to elide the many versions of Shakespeare’s text into a stable entity and reinforce the authority of the literary text over other modes of production, whilst Phillips’ choice to invoke fidelity to sentiment rather than text seeks to retain Shakespeare’s authorisation despite textual alterations. By suggesting that the text itself is transitory, Phillips stretches this authorisation to include the transposition of emotions and ideas within the text into other mediums such as sound which is central to Filter’s approach.

Director Sean Holmes, who has worked with Filter on several projects, and Elizabeth Freestone who worked with Holmes as Associate Director on their production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (2007), have both noted the centrality of problem-solving to Filter’s process, in which the ideas of everyone in the room are given equal value (Freestone 5). With the director treated as “a ‘skill’ in the room, as opposed to having to run the whole thing, as a director normally does” (Holmes qtd. in Marshall), creative responsibility is shared, allowing staging solutions to emerge from any or a combination of all of the skills within the room. Annette Vieusseux, who documented the rehearsal process for The Caucasian Chalk Circle as an outside eye noted: “A frequently asked question is ‘can we do that sonically?’” (Vieusseux). Applying this approach to Twelfth Night provided a range of sonic staging solutions to working with a cast of six.

Although the small cast doubled some roles, Orsino and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jonathan Broadbent), Feste and Maria (Gemma Saunders) and Poppy Miller played both Viola and her brother Sebastian, Filter chose to find sonic solutions to staging several of the smaller roles. Olivia’s reply to Orsino (Shakespeare 1.1.25–33) through a mobile phone was a straightforward modernisation of Valentine’s function as a messenger. This created the first unwanted aural intrusion into the performance, interrupting Orsino’s musings on Olivia (Syreeta Kumar), and prompted the audience to actively search for the source of the disturbance (Verstraete 107). The identification of the source as Roberts’s mobile phone as he sat watching the scene reinforced the liveness of the performance. This, in turn, elicited laughter from the audience at his predicament in response to him apologising and saying he thought it was on vibrate mode. When it became clear the phone call was planned, as a spectator I began to look for a secondary source. This was countered by Orsino holding the phone to a microphone, inviting the audience to collude in the illusion that the sound originated from this source, rather than the clearly visible sound equipment.

Viola’s conversation with the Captain in Act 1, Scene 2, took this collusion between audience and performer further. Once again, performer’s focus invited the audience to privilege visual over aural sources: Broadbent looking at a cup and saucer beside his seat in response to the sound effect of a cup and saucer rattling. Accompanied by a roll of thunder signifying a storm, this expedient way of establishing the shipwreck was reinforced by a shipping forecast which the performers’ focus invited the audience to locate as coming from a radio. By interspersing the shipping forecast with the Captain’s replies to Viola’s queries, Filter played on the friction between dialogue and broadcast to create a moment of technological uncanniness as the radio appeared to assume the cognitive conversational abilities of a human. By making the familiar radio technology strange, here experienced as a ghost in the machine, a moment of logical incomprehension was created (Till 183–200). Like Sir Toby’s shushing of the musician, this disrupted the apparent link between aural and visual sources and reinforced the liveness of the event through fostering an awareness of Miller’s skill in timing her responses to the recording. By ending the sequence with the radio uncooperatively switching to a music channel in response to Viola’s attempts to retune it in order to elicit further answers, effectively denying the character control over the machine, Filter extended this unease.

Characterisation and Music

Filter’s choice to not use set or costume, with the exception of Sir Toby Belch who appeared in Elizabethan doublet and ruff, allowed them to conflate Illyria with the here and now of the performance. As Dimsdale explained, “[i]t’s not a painted set behind you, it’s that night, it’s that afternoon, it’s wherever we are” (Dimsdale and Roberts 21). Their extensive use of the auditorium as part of their performance space, and their invitations to audience members to join them onstage at several points during the production, served to reinforce this interpretation. Changes of scene were indicated sonically, which had the advantage of rapidly establishing the new atmosphere of each scene and augmenting the interpretation of each character.

At the end of Act 3, Scene 1, Olivia concludes Cesario’s visit by returning to creating a low-pitched, drawn-out pulsing note with a bow on a bass guitar. As with Orsino’s experimental jazz, in Act 1, Scene 1, her choice of music reflected her attempts to express her longing, in this instance for Cesario. A rise in pitch cued the transition to the slow Cuban mambo beat of Tequila, visually reinforced by the actors as they embody the rhythm in their movements. As Roesner reflects in his study of musicality in theatre, embodiment of rhythm is one of a variety of ways that music has been used in actor training to inform the creation of characters (15–16). Kumar uses this to transform from Olivia to performer by jumping to her feet and beginning to dance. By the time Sir Toby runs on with a bottle of tequila, the actors are all dancing and playing along with various handheld percussion.

Filter harnesses the cultural signification created by their eclectic mix of musical genres to additionally socially position the characters through association with particular forms. Orsino’s social status is indicated by his commands to the musicians. Presented as an accomplished trumpet player, attuned to the complexities of experimental jazz, Broadbent is able to contrast this with Sir Andrew’s use of more popular music as an accompaniment to party tricks—such as back flips and head butt, a game in which balls are caught on a Velcro hat; his poor attempts to play the trumpet sonically reinforcing his lack of study in the arts (Shakespeare 1.3.71–72). Whilst Orsino uses music to indulge his mood, Sir Toby’s relationship with sound is more corporeal. His playful transgression of silence using the feedback created by swinging a microphone in front of an amplifier as a train whistle, or mischievously using the microphone in defiance of Maria’s warning to sing quietly in Act 2, Scene 3, indulged physical experience through sonic intensity. As with the other relationships with music discussed here, Sir Toby’s relationship with music is an extension of character traits indicated in Shakespeare’s text. This is reflected in the relations between characters and musicians. Whilst Orsino commands the musicians to play, Sir Toby relies on coaxing others to join in his fun, in the same way that he persuades Sir Andrew that Olivia favours him in order to get him to extend his stay (Shakespeare 1.3.81–82). Across the spectrum of characters, the different relationships between each character and sound positioned aurality as a potential site of conflict.

Loss of Control

The notion of aurality as a site of conflict is clearly embedded in the company’s thinking about the production, as established also in their marketing information for venues:

Two worlds collide in Filter’s explosive new take on Shakespeare’s lyrical Twelfth Night. Olivia’s melancholic, puritanical household clashes head-on with Sir Toby’s insatiable appetite for drunken debauchery. Orsino’s relentless pursuit of Olivia and Malvolio’s extraordinary transformation typify the madness of love in Illyria: land of make-believe and illusion. . . . Experience the madness of love in this heady world where riotous gig meets Shakespeare.

Schtanhaus 1

The control of sound as a source of conflict became central to developing both of these “worlds.” To establish Malvolio as central to the maintenance of Olivia’s puritanical household, Roberts opened Act 1, Scene 5, by using a game controller to initiate the effect of clocks ticking. He then pointed to a musician who matched this with a soft, repeated scale. This linked Malvolio, rather than Olivia’s house, to the audio signification of quiet order. Lively, repetitive theme music, initiated by Saunders cueing the musicians with a count of four, bracketed Feste’s subsequent mocking of Olivia’s mourning. This interruption of Malvolio’s quiet order created an aural conflict between the two characters, which culminated with Malvolio reasserting his authority through repetition of the actions and instructions with which he had opened the scene. This both prefigured Malvolio’s argument with Sir Toby over late night revelling in Act 2, Scene 3, and provided a point of contrast for his transformation in Act 2, Scene 5, in response to Maria’s forged love letter.

Throughout the production, the sound design empathetically echoed a range of states of love and infatuation, which the characters appeared to control with varying degrees of success. Music was used to aurally reinforce Olivia’s struggle to control her emotions in response to Cesario’s first visit in Act 1, Scene 5. As she started to reflect on Cesario (Shakespeare 1.5.223), a tremulous electronic note began, over which percussion, a drawn out note from an accordion and a dissonant electronic crescendo were layered. The resulting increase in volume cued a physical change in Kumar’s delivery, raising her voice in response which matched the rising cacophony. Here, Olivia’s attempt to control her desire—“Not too fast. Soft, soft!”—became, in addition, an instruction to the musicians (1.5.227). As Olivia resumed her soliloquy, the soundscape built once more, with her voice rising in volume until she finally surrendered to her desire by grabbing a microphone into which she shouted “Well, let it be” (1.5.232). In this way, the music became more than an accompaniment to Olivia’s emotions, with the increase in volume directly affecting Kumar’s delivery, creating a double performance in which both actor and musician collaborated in the live interpretation of character through their respective mediums. The resulting friction, played out as a struggle for and subsequent surrender of control, became an external expression of Olivia’s internal emotional state.

Actor and Musician: Sharing the Interpretation of Character

A similar sharing of character interpretation between actor and musician underpinned Malvolio’s transformation during the gulling scene. Set to loud grunge rock, Roberts transformed Malvolio into a frenzied air-drum playing exhibitionist in tight yellow shorts and long socks. The choice of music, here, was integral to this unusual interpretation of Malvolio. As he explained, Malvolio’s transformation:

came about through the game that we’ve played on various occasions in shows that we’ve done, or certainly in rehearsals, which is that if Tom or Ross or anybody came up with a microphone and put it to my head what would be going on? What would the song be playing? And I said I think it would be something like Iggy Pop.

Dimsdale and Roberts 15

This game had been used in a more direct form earlier in the performance when Sir Andrew put a microphone to his head to reveal a simple repetitive melody that represented the strangeness of his mind (Shakespeare 1.3.83). However, in interpreting Malvolio, Roberts employed this as a rehearsal exercise to inform his choice of music. The choice of grunge rock enabled Roberts to reference the posturing of frontmen like Iggy Pop in creating his fantasy of becoming Count Malvolio. Control of the intensity of the music was incorporated into this gesturing, the musicians’ responsiveness colluding with his fantasy of status. As he responds to the letter, the grunge rock was overlaid with Olivia’s voice seductively repeating the initials “M. O. A. I.” (2.5.104), haunting him as he tried to make a link to his own name.

Roberts’ foremost concern was to explore the possibilities offered by the opportunity to play Malvolio whilst in his thirties. Aware that a youthful Malvolio would be a departure from previous casting conventions, Roberts explained: “I don’t want to play old, I just want to go with what’s written, and weirdly in that there is in Malvolio this burning, passionate desire to be released” (Dimsdale and Roberts 15). Whilst as Roberts notes, Malvolio’s desire is evident in the text, Filter’s economic use of dialogue led to much of this scene being cut, including the moment that Malvolio’s fantasy tips into reality: “I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me” (Shakespeare 2.5.120–21). Instead, this sentiment was communicated by Roberts stripping down to yellow socks and shorts then performing an ecstatic air drum solo.

Whereas in similar double performances such as that of Olivia in Act 1, Scene 5, friction was created by the character’s struggle with their emotions and communicated through their attempts to quieten the music, Malvolio’s desire directed the music. Expressing his ecstasy at the contents of the letter through a shout of “Jove and my stars be praised” (Shakespeare 2.5.120–21), Malvolio led an increase in volume, the musicians matching his energy. This contrast with his previous attempts to maintain a quiet order foregrounded the strength of his desire, whilst retaining Malvolio’s interpretation as needing to be in control of his environment.

Twelfth Night (performers Poppy Miller, Jonathan Broadbent, Gemma Saunders and Ferdy Roberts). Photo: Tristram Kenton

The simplicity of Filter’s staging was central to the relationship between actor and aurality in Twelfth Night. By sharing the same light and space, actors and musicians were able to create reciprocal relationships in which the performance of sound productively played on tensions between aural and visual reception. This invited imaginative collusions with the audience, and in the process foregrounded the skill of the performers through referencing the liveness of the performance. Through their focus on finding sonic solutions to staging problems in their collaborative process, Filter’s performative approaches were created by musicians and actors that combined to jointly communicate the characters’ psychological journeys. Building on existing work by Roesner, Curtin and Taylor, further case studies are needed of similar collaborative approaches that place sound at the centre of their process to situate Filter’s work within this growing field. This will allow a comparison of how variations in the relationships between actors and musicians within collaborative processes impact the performance of sound, with a view to mapping the different relationships that these create between actors and aurality.


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*Sarah McCourt teaches on the BA (Hons) Drama and the MA Creative Arts in Education programmes at Exeter University. She completed her PhD on contemporary Shakespeare adaptation at Exeter University in 2016.

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