Theatre Critic and Journalist

Interview: Filter’s Ferdy Roberts & Oliver Dimsdale

Interview: Filter’s Ferdy Roberts & Oliver Dimsdale

Written for The Stage

No one has staged Twelfth Night’s midnight feast better than Filter Theatre. Half-hungover, half-drunk, Sir Andrew, Sir Toby and Feste started to rock out, hollering into microphones. The audience, without exception, crooned and clapped along. One hopped onstage to dance with Maria. Tequila shots were downed. A local pizza delivery guy turned up and dished out slices.

Then, in stormed Malvolio, instantly puncturing the party atmosphere. “My masters, are you mad?” And the truth is, yes, for fifteen minutes we were. Swept away by Filter’s contagious anarchy, we had entirely forgotten both ourselves and Shakespeare’s play. We stared at our feet, embarrassed at being caught guards-down.

This is what director Sean Holmes calls Filter’s “healthy disrespect,” which can release a play’s essence better than slavish textual scrutiny. Collaborating with Filter for the first time in 2006 on The Caucasian Chalk Circle “reinvigorated me as a director,” he says. They’ve since completely remixed Twelfth Night, Three Sisters and, most recently, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Macbeth and Hamlet have been spoken about as future possibilities with a very different tone.

“Working with Filter is like being in a band,” says David Farr, who has written and directed their recent devised productions Water and Silence, “with three lead guitarists.” They are actors Oliver Dimsdale and Ferdy Roberts and sound designer Tim Phillips, artistic directors of a company best defined by its youthful, almost punkish, spirit.

Yet, this year marks the tenth anniversary of their first show, Faster; a devised multi-narrative about the pace of urban life. It’s a milestone that, for theatre companies, signifies middle age. “Ten years seems to be bandied around as the amount of time people can spend making work collaboratively before you want to kill each other,” says Dimsdale, “Strangely enough, we don’t want to kill each other now as much as we did four or five years ago.”

“At that point,” Roberts chips in, “we were all fighting for some sort of ownership, jostling for position and arguing about the future. It’s taken ten years to work out what we like and don’t like.”

“We want to put on theatre that we want to see. We’re almost doing it for ourselves,” snatches Dimsdale. For all the messy chaos, story always comes first. That means, though high-tech sound design is central, simplicity rules. “It’s sort of going back to the dawn of storytelling. A mad bunch of travelling plays turn up somewhere, plonks their instruments down and tell the story.”

“The idea,” Roberts interrupts again, “is that the rehearsal room ends up onstage.”

Together, they make an odd couple, constantly overlapping in speech. Roberts, bearded and wrapped in a chunky-knit cardie, is more verbose and upright. Dimsdale, with Home and Away good looks, is effortlessly cool with a glint of mischief. In the combination, one starts to understand the company’s mantra of serious fun. “We’re packed with contradictions,” Dimsdale suggests, “Take it seriously, but never, ever take it too seriously.” The attitude’s origins, like the company itself, come from Guildhall, where the company formed “in the pub,” it being the only place the school’s trainee actors and musicians really mixed.

“Olly and I have fought like dogs in rehearsal rooms, but we just don’t think about it. Two minutes later it’s forgotten. Other people find that really weird.”

Their rehearsals, he says, are unlike any other either actor has experienced: “Anarchic. Full of noise. If you walked in, you’d probably go ‘What? How do they get anything done.” Their processes are peppered with a running-joke: “Still no palpable sense of urgency.” New collaborators, such as RSC Ensemble actors that joined them for last year’s Silence, can take a while to adjust. “We trust it, because we’ve done it before,” Roberts continues, “but you felt they were saying, ‘These guys don’t know what they’re doing.’ You’ve just got to get in there and do it, otherwise you’ll sink.”

It cuts both ways, though. Both work regularly outside of the company and find it hard to drop the attitude that anything-goes. “You’ve got to remind yourself to shut up,” says Roberts. Dimsdale says he sometimes feels “completely marooned. I go into myself a little bit. Many directors could do with shutting up for a third of the time, setting exercise and getting other people to create.”

That’s at the heart of their working relationship with both Holmes and Farr, which is horizontal rather than hierarchical. Yet bringing in an outside director is unusual amongst collaborative companies. “We all have very strong voices inside the room, but to keep that manageable, you need to have an arbiter to referee.”

Next to adjudicate is the RSC’s outgoing artistic director Michael Boyd. “I think we’ve already slightly addled his mind a bit, as he travelled to Wyoming with us and listened to us spout drivel in the back of a van.” The Western Project, to premiere in 2013, is based on the company’s own ancestries and links to the American mid-West. Dimsdale’s bought land from native Indians in the 17th century, while Roberts’s family has ties to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Co-incidentally, another odd couple: one talkative, the other laconic, but both doing things their own way.

Photograph: Filter Theatre

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