From chaos comes… Filter Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“We’re treading a very thin line between being absolute terrible and rather special,” Sean Holmes confides between rehearsals for Filter Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith. “There’s a hostage to fortune!” The current rehearsal process makes him think of Apocalypse Now, “almost one of the worst films ever made but somehow it pulls it together”. Yet for anyone worried about the fortunes of the show after hearing that, keep calm. Holmes speaks quickly and fluently about his work, the show and working with Filter, and has the easy confidence and crackling energy of someone who is used to pulling things together at the last minute.

Part of this confidence comes from the fact that Holmes, who is Artistic Director at the Lyric, has worked with Filter’s three Artistic Directors many times before. Together, they have produced Three Sisters, Caucasian Chalk Circle and Twelfth Night, and are now tackling some more Shakespeare in the form of Dream. “We initially shied away from doing Dream”, explains Holmes, “because it seemed the obvious one to do: what’s central to Filter is sound and music… the reason Twelfth Night worked is that it’s full of sound and music, and Dream is the same. We talked about doing a tragedy (and maybe we will!) but they’re not so built upon music – this feels organic rather than imposed. There’s just something about it that’s a good fit.”

This is the not first time that they’ve “done” Dream either, having taken a version of this show to the Latitude festival in 2010 and toured it, on a small scale, last year. “The great thing about Latitude,” smiles Holmes, “is that it’s ten days, and if it’s rubbish you never have to do it again, and everyone’s in a festival atmosphere so no-one really minds!” This may be true, but I get the impression that Holmes was nonetheless rather pleased that the show went down well at Latitude and has had a life beyond its time in a field. “The Latitude run released something very true about the play… we had ten days of rehearsal and then did it at Latitude; we’d never run it, never teched it. There was something in that chaos that was useful to the making of the show.”

Fortunately, that chaos yielded success. Yet this way of working was not new to Holmes or to Filter: “Dream was very much the same process as Twelfth Night… I’d spent a lot of time at the RSC with a cast of 25 and months of rehearsals, and didn’t feel that I’d ever really cracked a Shakespeare show. The RSC gave us money, as part of its Complete Works festival, to do a response to Twelfth Night. We did it in two weeks. Because the show couldn’t succeed, we had a lack of fear… well, we veered from a complete lack of fear to absolute terror and back again.” Perhaps Holmes thrives on this kind of pressure? “Something special came out of it, certainly. It released the spirit of Shakespeare, for me.”

In fact, Holmes was closer to the “spirit” of Shakespeare than he perhaps realised at that time. With hindsight, he observes, “our chaotic rehearsal was probably quite similar to how Shakespeare himself would have approached a play; take a group who know each other and rehearse without a real director.” If Holmes doesn’t see himself as a “real” director, is this because he is working with a company that comes with its own directors? “My role has been quite hands off – I often think I’m only there to ask if it’s time for a tea break! No, seriously, I intervene quite late and quite rigorously; I’ll cut 15 minutes here, change a bit here – I do what you’d normally do in a month in a day.” So a real director in fast-forward, then; Holmes just doesn’t have the luxury of time.

What’s different about this production, apart from the longer run and proscenium arch staging, is that the Lyric is one of the theatres involved in the Linbury Prize for Stage Design. Thirty young designers are chosen by a panel of judges for the bi-annual prize, and a shortlist of 12 are then split across four participating theatres, including the Lyric. Each of the shortlisted designers at the Lyric was asked to design a set for this production of Dream, with the favourite being commissioned. These four ‘winning’ designs (one for each theatre) are then judged again, and an overall winner chosen. This year, the winner was Hyemi Shin, who designed Dream for the Lyric. The Lyric has said, “It’s a great scheme which gives young designers a fantastic opportunity to design a major theatrical production at a very early stage in their careers. It’s a design which allows the company to be playful in their production of Shakespeare’s classic.” Holmes agrees: “The big difference now is that [because we’re suddenly in a less intimate, proscenium arch theatre space] what we therefore need is a stronger visual element – one that can hold the metaphor and image on stage. Any Filter show I’ve seen, even with a complex design, has been on a stripped-down stage, so this is a good departure for us. Hyemi’s design has a strong visual intervention, but it is very flexible and mutable; the actors can play round it and through it. However, the process has still been classic Filter, doing things the wrong way round: she was designing for a show that already existed in a different space, rather than coming in fresh at the beginning of the process.”

If this process is thinly-veiled chaos, then Holmes remains upbeat: “Dream can take being experimented with, you can mess about with it. It’s got a strong forward momentum, which we commit to. We’re respectfully disrespectful. We play fast and loose with the text – we’ve cut quite a lot. I think Shakespeare would be spinning in his grave, but would quite enjoy spinning. He’s big enough and tough enough to take anything we can throw at him…” With the bard having survived these 400-odd years, Holmes is probably right. I for one am looking forward to seeing what sticks.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at the Lyric Hammersmith from 11 February to 15 March. For more information and to book tickets, visit the theatre’s website.