First transmitted 6th January 1980
Alec McCowen is fooled and bamboozled by some comic pranksters
Cast: Felicity Kendal (Viola), Alec McCowen (Malvolio), Robert Hardy (Sir Toby Belch), Sinead Cusack (Olivia), Annette Crosbie (Maria), Trevor Peacock (Feste), Clive Arrindell (Orsino), Ronnie Stevens (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Robert Lindsay (Fabian), Maurice Roeves (Antonio), Michael Thomas (Sebastian), Malcolm Reynolds (Valentine), Ryan Michael (Curio), Ric Morgan (Captain), Arthur Hewlett (Priest)
Director: John Gorrie
After what seems like a long journey through British history in the last few plays of the series, it was a bit of a relief to finally get a bit of a respite with another genre of Shakespeare: a comedy. Now the last comedy I watched in this series was As You Like It, which, loyal followers of this blog will know, was surely one of the worst things committed to film by the BBC. Twelfth Night is undoubtedly far superior to that (hurrah!). But it falls into the difficulties that the vast majority of Shakespeare comedies I have seen on film fall into. It is simply not that funny.
Shakespearean comedy is highly theatrical in its nature. It’s built around having that immediate connection with the audience. The jokes feed off the actors being there in the room with you, from having that shared experience of other people laughing alongside you to be truly successful. It’s not just Shakespeare of course – how many modern stage comedies have been translated to screen only to be met with stony silence from audiences? The films of Noises Off and A Chorus of Disapproval spring straight to mind as examples. (There were films of those you say? Yes there were and thanks for proving my point.)
This is why so many television comedies (from sitcoms to panel shows) have laughter tracks or are recorded before a live studio audience. People are more comfortable letting go and laughing if they feel it is part of a communal experience. Performers in turn feed off that energy, taker greater risks, become less self-conscious and (hopefully) more funny. Try and imagine creating that atmosphere in your performance on a cold Tuesday evening in a TV studio surrounded by technicians and clock-watching union officials (as these films would have been). Hardly conducive to side-splitting entertainment is it?
Well anyway, that’s a general point that probably applies to every comedy I’m going to watch in this series. Shakespeare drama translates better to film: it’s more intense, more, for want of a better word, dramatic. That shouldn’t detract from the fine, clever little drama John Gorrie has created here in his inaugural effort for the series. This Twelfth Night is set in an autumnal 17th-century setting, with echoes of the English Civil War in both dress and styling and in the portrayal of Malvolio’s puritanism. The house is a triumph of production design, with Gorrie’s intention of creating a clear ‘geography’ to the house and its rooms very successful. There are splashes of inspiration from Rembrandt in the lighting and design in places. Even the house exteriors look convincing (which is more than can be said for the painfully artificial beach in A1 S2). It all serves to place McCowen’s firm and softly-spoken Malvolio as prototype parliamentian, while Orsino contrasts as a clichéd layabout royalist (and a nod of the hat to Gorrie for sneaking the setting beyond the ‘Messina rules’ of nothing past the 1610s).
The sexuality of the play also gets some interesting exploration here. Most clearly, Antonio’s homosexuality is played very openly and clearly (and with a great deal of emotion in Maurice Roeve’s sensitive performance, a real highlight) with it gently accepted by Sebastian, although there is no hint of reciprocation. But Gorrie also allows a suggestion of underlying attraction for Olivia from Viola (her breathless reaction when Olivia reveals her face of “most fine”), which puts in context slightly her gentle reaction to her throughout the play. Similarly in A2 S4 Orsino displays an almost flirty sensuality towards Viola/Cesario, which again allows his fury towards her when he assumes she has betrayed him in A5 S1 to have a greater edge to it.
Sex is clearly very prominent in the house. Belch and Maria are all over each other like a pair of horny teenagers. Olivia’s increasingly colourful and shapely dresses from scene to scene demonstrate clearly her growing fascination with Cesario. Sebastian can’t believe his luck when he arrives – and is quite happy to enjoy Olivia’s attentions once they are thrust upon him (so to speak). Even Malvolio is reduced to a giggly, bouncing mess from sexual excitement at the thought of claiming Olivia for his own (and when he encounters her in A3 S4 she clearly recognises exactly what he is feeling and is slightly panicked at it). It’s a very nice undertone to the production.
Perhaps part of this strange sexual buzz is related to the fact that Kendal’s Cesario looks literally nothing like a man. I’ve genuinely never seen a less convincing drag-act since Lt. George in Blackadder. Still clearly wearing eye-shadow and make-up and with flowing feminine hair, surely no-one in their right mind could ever believe her to be a man, for all the masculine posing she takes on. I can’t decide if this is a big problem or not. It probably wouldn’t be in the theatre with the suspension of disbelief but it works slightly less here. Attempts to give Sebastian a bouffant haircut, don’t change the fact that they don’t really look like each other that much. It’s a problem that Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night film tackled much more effectively. That issue aside, Kendal’s performance is fine-spoken with a dollop of humanity and tenderness (both for Olivia and for Orsino) as well as sympathy. But it’s a slightly flat performance. I think what it doesn’t really sell is either a real intelligence or any particular enjoyment in disguise. It’s just a little low on joy.
So what we get instead is the first Twelfth Night I’ve seen where Olivia emerges as a warmer and more engaging character than Viola. Sinead Cusack gives a terrific performance as a kindly lady of the manor, her generous nature quickly established by having Feste (a nice turn by a jovial and wiser-than-he-seems Trevor Peacock) cuddling up to her like a child in her first scene. In her wooing of Cesario she seems shy and bashful and so earnest and gentle in her seduction that Viola finds it impossible to feel anything but sympathy with her. There is a lovely shot at the end of A2 S2 of her staring, heartbroken and lonely, out of the window as Cesario leaves. Her pity for Malvolio in A5 S1 is clearly the only thing that can even slightly soothe him. And it’s no wonder that she has no interest in Clive Arrindell’s uncharismatic and tedious Orsino.
The comedy characters suffer from the issues I talked about above. Despite this, there is some good work here. Robert Hardy plays Sir Toby as a faded army colonel, gone to seed, overweight and over the hill but clearly still smart and with a degree of physical courage (he proves himself a good, if rusty, fighter). He is less a drunk than a roisterer, a bored retiree who treats those around him as potential sources of amusement, a role that Ronnie Stevens’ meek and simpering Aguecheek (a man so tame he can only swear in inaudible mumbles, embarrassed that someone might hear him). His joie-de-vivre sexuality with Annette Crosbie’s Maria is a nice touch that adds some depth to the character. Belch is always a low-rent Falstaff, but it’s great to see an interpretation here that gives him a bit of dignity, rather than just being the first among idiots.
The casting of Robert Lindsay (at the time known only as a sitcom actor) is also a fantastic addition. A much better actor than the casting gives him credit for, he makes Fabian an actual character: a smart man scornful of his betters, but fundamentally a coward and a lackey. He also has a lot of energy he brings to scenes, certainly more than a couple of the other performers which really makes him stand out. Like Alun Armstrong in Measure for Measure, it’s easy to see why he went on to have such a strong dramatic career.
The balance between comedy and drama in the production, though, is off. All the best (and memorable) moments in the play are the serious ones not the funny ones. Alec McCowen’s Malvolio has moments, but it’s a performance that seems more comfortable in the cold officiousness of A2 S3 or the desperate tragedy of A4 S2 than the wooing of A3 S4. The flurry of challenges in A4 have their moments (and there is a nice underplayed double-take from Hardy in A5 S1) but they don’t have enough energy to them. Michael Thomas’ Sebastian is too much of a cold figure to provide the bemusement and outrage the scenes need. Even the famous yellow stockings are only sighted briefly on screen. Compared with the more ‘dramatic’ elements around the relationships of the characters, it never quite takes flight. And that is perhaps, in the end, a terminal problem for a play that is probably one of Shakespeare’s funniest stage comedies. You want to be much more amused by it than you are ever going to be.
The comedy isn’t there but when the focus is on the dramatic it works rather well and there are some good performances, in particular Cusack, Hardy and Lindsay, that reinterpret their characters in subtle ways. The setting of the play works well to bring out some of the play’s themes. More laughs would be better, but it’s a massive step-up from As You Like It and has a little more interpretative flair to it than other productions.
NEXT TIME: Michael Hordern is betrayed and abandoned but plots his magical revenge in The Tempest.