This pared-down production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” first appeared as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Season in 2006, and is now touring Britain and Europe. The concept is Shakespeare as a jazz gig: There is no set, just a bunch of musical instruments, packing cases and cables on the stage. The contemporary street-clothed actors and musicians hang out as the audience enters, and the action begins when Jonathan Broadbent recites the play’s famous first line: “If. If music. If music be…” The result is engaging, but not as cool or convincingly spontaneous as seemingly intended.
The combination of acted performance alongside live and recorded music is a trademark of production company Filter, whose two actor-founder members Oliver Dimsdale and Ferdy Roberts here take the plum roles of Toby Belch and Malvolio (the company’s other founder is musician Tim Phillips).
The production’s key theme is playfulness, launching into the text as if it were an improvisatory game that turns more serious when a teacup rattles on the stage presaging a storm, and the shipwrecked Viola (Poppy Miller) wanders in. Her initial scene, in which she wonders where she has landed, is conducted in dialogue exchanges with a radio shipping forecast. This is funny, but as with so much here, it’s hard to discern the point beyond cleverness itself.
Another characteristic of the production is audience interaction: Miller borrows a jacket from a man in the audience for her disguise as Cesario, also directing her monologues and asides to the house throughout.
The company has effectively edited the story down to its bare bones — characters walk straight into the playing area and launch into dialogue. Things move quickly and few clues are offered when actors switch roles, but the story is nonetheless conveyed clearly, and the overall relaxed tone encourages auds to go with the flow.
This reaches its fullest consummation in a 10-minute-plus party scene, in which boxes of pizza are distributed and aud members are encouraged to throw cushy balls at the Velcro-capped head of Aguecheek (Broadbent). Some are even brought onstage to boogie gamely with the actors. The gimmicks, however, make it hard to know how seriously the company’s interpretation of the play is meant to be taken.
Another interesting if puzzling flourish is Sebastian’s arrival and the action that follows: Miller plays both twins, revealing herself to Olivia (Syreeta Kumar) and Orsino (Broadbent) while standing between them and switching characters as she turns from side to side.
The evening’s standout perf is Roberts as a hilariously, eventually tragically, self-involved Malvolio. His reading of the role is compelling because of its conviction and the actor’s beautifully spoken dialogue, effectively framed by jazz underscoring.
Overall, the look and texture feel like postmodern deconstruction, but the story itself is delivered in a fairly straightforward manner, not particularly illuminated by the directorial approach. There is a studied, actorly quality to the production that undercuts its attempted just-hangin’-out-doin’-a-play vibe. The exercise might have been more effective if it wasn’t working so hard to pretend it wasn’t trying to work at all.