Twelfth Night (1988)

Anton Lesser, Richard Briers, Abigail McKern, Caroline Langrishe

by Shandy Casteel

7 October 2005


Love, Mourning, and Madness

Meticulously straightforward, Paul Kafno’s direction of Twelfth Night suits Kenneth Branagh’s inconspicuous stage direction. The minimalist backdrop, which originally appeared in an acclaimed run under the banner of Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company, invokes Victorian Christmas pageantry which lends well to the moments of holiday gaiety, but also helps draw out the comedy’s omnipresent cruelty.

Shot in 1988 for Thames Television, it is now available on DVD, and reveals the young Branagh’s development as an interpreter of Shakespeare. Just a year later, he directed the gritty and rousing Henry V, and then in 1996, his colorful Hamlet kept every syllable of the lengthy play intact. Branagh’s Shakespearean renderings commonly showcase the playwright’s language, making it accessible to all audiences.

cover art

Twelfth Night (thames Shakespeare Collection)

(Thames Television)
US DVD: 30 Aug 2005

Twelfth Night is commonly read by academics as Shakespeare’s most mature comedy. As Branagh states in an interview comprising one of the two pitifully scarce extras on the disc, he sought to bring a “Chekhovian quality” to the proceedings. Its late 19th-century European location provides pleasant enough viewing, but its downheartedness is most striking, as it frames ongoing discussions of love, mourning, and madness.

The presentation begins with a typical approach: the first two scenes are swapped, allowing Viola’s (Frances Barber) striking entrance to open the production. Shipwrecked in a foreign land and believing her identical twin brother drowned, Viola asks, “What country, friends, is this?”, and the captain (Tim Barker) accompanying her answers, “This is Illyria, lady.” Purely magical, the lines open up the play into the realm of mystery, as this grants Viola an opportunity to begin anew. Deciding to pose as a man, Cesario, she enters the service of the local duke, Count Orsino (Christopher Ravenscroft). As always in Shakespeare, sexual identity forgery leads to mayhem.

The Count dispatches Cesario to help him woo Olivia (Caroline Langrishe), who is, in turn, mourning her own dead brother, as she has vowed to do for seven years. And so, all romantic lines are crossed: Orsino loves Olivia, Viola loves Orsino, and Olivia loves Cesario. More complications involve Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Christopher Hollis), who shows up alive and well, to be mistaken for Cesario by Olivia. Then Antonio (also played by Barker), who is assisting Sebastian, professes love for Sebastian and, in one of the play’s sweetest moments, gives the young man his wallet, saying, “Haply your eye shall light upon some toy/You have desire to purchase and your store/I think is not for idle markets sir.” The lines speak to longing and loss without judging chosen objects or desires.

Branagh’s treatment of the subplot involving Olivia’s conservative steward Malvolio (Richard Briers) thoroughly attends to his humiliation by her uncle, Sir Toby Belch (James Saxon), aided by Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Simmons) and Maria (Abigail McKern). While something of a prig, Malvolio here seems not to deserve his cruel duping, accomplished by way of a forged letter that leads him to believe Olivia has feelings for him. Even at the end of the play, when other deceptions are brought to light, this injustice is left unresolved, so that Malvolio can only skulk off, vowing revenge on all of them. In his bitterness, the production underlines the meanness of this “comedic” formula.

The primary weakness here is the television presentation. Kafno tries to convey the original theatrical version’s immediacy, but his bare direction, relying heavily on medium shots, leaves Twelfth Night looking dull. Without an audience or the benefit of filming on location, the actors’ performances seem caught up in a void.

Other versions of Twelfth Night have brought their own idiosyncrasies. Trevor Nunn’s 1996 refiguring heightened the sexual ambiguities, and in 2003, Tim Supple’s Channel 4 production emphasized displacement with multiracial casting (Viola is an Indian stowaway). But, Branagh and Kafno’s Twelfth Night is the most durable version, focused on Shakespeare’s language as the central vehicle for Shakespeare’s gender and genre play. Their production exposes the interrelationship of comedy and cruelty, with little diversion.

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