Filter Fights Back…

Greetings once again my dear little theatre-going minkies… If i may hold your attention for a session of waffle, I would be grateful. If not- i shall never know so do feel free to pootle off as and when you grow tired of my prattling. Right, that should have done it- those of you whom have managed to read to here_____ are doing well. Now- onwards and upwards, the following is NOT a review, but i’m hoping you will find it none-the-less informative. If not, then at least to humour my theatrically-minded twaddle…

You may remember a while ago, I reviewed a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a collaborative project between the Lyric Hammersmith and theatre company Filter. You may also remember, that whilst i somewhat enjoyed the production, i felt that some staging concepts and aesthetic decisions were not fully justified…

Well, on the 10th February, I and the rest of the budding theatre crit.students who reviewed it, received the opportunity to grill one of the Co-artistic directors of Filter: Ferdy Roberts.

Well, not quite this much facial hair...

The first thing that flits through your mind when you meet Ferdy is: what a nice guy. I mean, a blanket of hair and facial-foliage, coupled with a rather cheery disposition, how could you not? This like-able-ness, i dare-say, made us feel the need to choose our phrasing carefully when asking him to justify the dramatic, aesthetic and technical devices for the production we saw on the 18th January.

I feel at this point that some sound-bytes may be appropriate, so that I can discuss each subject in the order they arose during the morning’s encounter…

Filters’ principle with regards to the portrayal of emotion from written text, is “not to spoonfeed an audience with emotion”: circumventing the cheese associated with televised dramas- yes, i know i said ‘televised’, but  presumably the principle remains the same: Ferdy and the Filter posse want their audiences to earn the communal, emotive pleasure commonly associated with live theatre. However, when asked if this emotional distancing in order to perceive the action or events was in any way ‘Brechtian’, the answer was resoundingly against any association with the German dramaturg/playwright. This begs the question: if you don’t want the audience to become emotionally engaged in the endeavours of the characters, and yet you don’t particularly care if they focus on any political or social commentary- then what do you want?

This leads on to another question Ferdy posed in response to our enquiries about critics’ early observations of the production. [In regards to Chekhov] “What did you expect to see, and what didn’t you see?” Well… i wouldn’t have anticipated spending so much time wondering why one of the sisters  had an Irish accent when her siblings didn’t…

Ferdy said that Filter tries to “take the actor ego and leave it at home”, in order to allow the characters from the piece to exist on stage in their own right, without actor’s personal experiences and desires warping these personas to fit their own/the directors’ desires. So, why was Claire (Irina) told to keep her native Irish accent despite the obvious dischord with the dialect of her sisters? Surely, by allowing the ACTRESS to keep her own accent, this placed the needs/ desires of the actress before the credibility of the character’s family dynamic.

As an essentially collaborative company, Ferdy admitted that there were always loud “voices in the room” whom “are all equal…” whilst  “trying to create an honest piece of work”. However the problem with this, as Ric Knowles puts it in ‘Reading the Material Theatre’: “without engaged analysis and self-relfexivity this approach can serve primarily to mystify inequalities, efface significant cultural differences, and favor the powerful.’

Without the establishment of some sort of social hierarchy within the rehearsal process, a production can often wind-up flimsy and half-hearted, as was the case with some of the ideas Filter used in ‘Three Sisters’. Ferdy was quick to put this down to the influence of the Lyric’s artistic-director Sean Holmes, whom wanted to “play it safe” with the line of productions this year; coupled with Filter “being a little scared” of the script itself. This leads me to wonder who/ if anyone really took control of this production. Ferdy himself admitted, he was not “totally convinced it works” as they didn’t have the commitment to dissect Chekhov as much as they could have done, and were apparently restricted by Sean Holmes own artistic/executive priorities.

Mr.Roberts seemed fairly adamant that Filter’s renditions of ‘Three Sisters’ is much truer to Chekhov’s original script than previous adaptations, which have added scenes in favour of others, and have focused too much on the emotive elements as opposed to the technical details of Chekhov’s text.

It seems to me, that Filter doesn’t really know whom they want to be as a company. They want to focus on the technical aspects of production; work as collaboratively as possible; and keep the audience at an emotional distance. And they are resiliently against, even wary of being labelled as either ‘Brechtian’ or ‘experimental’. This is I suppose, a valid point on Ferdy’s part, when he says that “all theatre is experimental… we’re finding it hard to break away from this bracket”. Yes, all theatre is experimental- some more-so than others. Filter: when you mic a boiling kettle, have no set and have stage-hands walking amongst the actors; when you disregard continuity in aesthetics, and blatantly ignore character development, of course you’re going to bracketed on the higher end of the ‘experimental’ scale. I think it relatively pointless to try and dissociate oneself from such a label if, as Ferdy says “all theatre is experimental”. So, Filter is creating theatre, are they not? They are, therefore an ‘experimental’ theatre company, despite Ferdy’s desire to be viewed otherwise.

All in all it was an interesting conversation, a few u-turns, but some interesting insights into the workings of an original theatre company which is a little confused about it’s own identity and motives.

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