I’ve just got back from a week’s holiday near Stratford upon Avon. While staying there, I was lucky enough to see two excellent RSC productions, of The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It – and, keeping up the Shakespearean theme, also watched a DVD of Trevor Nunn’s movie of Twelfth Night. This must be one of my favourites out of the modern films of Shakespeare that I’ve seen, and it would be interesting to know how much is taken from Nunn’s stage productions.
Nunn’s version of Illyria looks visually sumptuous, with turbulent Cornish seascapes and beautiful countryside, while the costumes seem vaguely Victorian rather than Elizabethan. The music, by Sean Davey, adds to the haunting atmosphere. I was surprised at the way the film starts with the play’s “back story”, of the shipwreck – and the startling glimpse of Steven Mackintosh as Sebastian and Imogen Stubbs as Viola both dressed as women, taking part in an on-board entertainment. This seems to have been included to emphasise the play’s element of cross-dressing and to balance against the scene near the end where the two are seen both dressed identically as men.
It definitely helps this production that there is a startling similarity in appearance between Mackintosh and Stubbs – though their voices are completely different – and it is more possible to imagine Viola being mistaken for Sebastian than it is in other productions of Twelfth Night that I’ve seen in the past. I found an interesting academic essay online by Nicholas R Jones which goes into a lot of detail about the cross-dressing theme and the role of the fool in this adaptation – I really need to reread this, but will give the link.
In a production which stresses the emotional turbulence of Illyria, I especially enjoyed Toby Stephens’ performance as a deliciously over-the-top Orsino. He is pining away with a self-indulgent love which seems centred more on himself than on Olivia (Helena Bonham-Carter). I was puzzled as to why he has his arm in a sling in the early scenes. Nicholas Farrell gives a more restrained and moving performance as Antonio, who risks everything for the love of Sebastian, though I was disappointed to notice that one of this character’s finest speeches had been cut.
My favourite performance is probably given by Ben Kingsley as Feste, one of the greatest of Shakespeare’s fools. His expressive face brings out the elements of bitterness and melancholy inextricably mixed into the character’s humour. I also hadn’t realised until seeing this that Sir Ben was such a good singer. Nigel Hawthorne is equally great as the ambitious steward, Malvolio, bringing out the character’s pomposity and yet his hidden vulnerability. Giving Malvolio a slight country accent emphasises the class contempt which is part of Sir Toby’s (Mel Smith) motivation in goading and teasing him to the point of madness. This whole savagely comic episode is a tragedy for Malvolio himself, and this production brings that out.
I must also just mention Richard E Grant, who has a lot of fun as the ludicrous Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Imelda Staunton as a mischievous Maria – the appearance of such well-known actors in these small parts underlines just what a strong cast this production has. Most of the cast are experienced Shakespearean actors and one of the glories of this version is the way they speak the verse.
For further reading, here is a link to A Year of Shakespeare, a blog here at wordpress run by a keen reader who is trying to read all Shakespeare’s works over one year, and has written a review of this production of Twelfth Night .