Sunday, August 19, 2018

Twelve Nights and One Thousand Nine Hundred Sixty Nine Years

One of the adaptations of Twelfth Night available on Amazon Prime is a 1969 made for television version with Alec Guinness as Malvolio, Ralph Richardson as Sir Toby, and Tommy Steele as Feste. It's not bad but I still haven't seen an adaptation of the play I really like. The BBC Television Shakespeare version is pretty lousy with weak performances except from Robert Hardy as Sir Toby. And Trevor Peacock as Feste isn't bad. I've also seen Kenneth Branagh's version from the late 80s which is okay but I think I like the 1969 version more. They have some things in common: Both Branagh's and the 1969 version turn Feste, the fool, into a sort of melancholy rock star.

Though while Branagh went for goth rocker the 69 version, directed by John Sichel and John Dexter, comes across as the teen idol Steele was at the time. He's so perfectly 60s it's kind of cute.

Joan Plowright plays Viola and Sebastian, so she plays a woman pretending to be a man and a man. She does a good job keeping the two performances distinct though she'd have been better off without the blue shadow when playing the masquerading Viola and it definitely looks out of place on Sebastian.

I guess we're meant to think Joan Plowright just has naturally blue skin in that spot.

But of course the best performances are from Guinness and Richardson. As a sort of low key Falstaff, Richardson makes a lot with a pretty simple role and it's always nice seeing a great actor play drunk. But Guinness takes the cake as the Puritan whose severe devotion to virtuous living goes right out the window when he thinks Olivia is in love with him. Watching him smiling and strutting in those stupid yellow stockings he's tricked into wearing is pretty great.

The play's themes of crossing gender and class lines are well known. For a Puritan, the idea of a servant daring to think he could have a relationship with the woman in charge of the household does kind of make sense given that the Levellers were one of the groups associated under the blanket pejorative of "Puritan". Shakespeare may be poking fun at England's most zealous Protestants though Malvolio is represented primarily as an extraordinary hypocrite:


The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affection'd ass, that cons state without book, and utters it by great swarths; the best persuaded of himself, so cramm'd, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.

For a comedy, it's strange that Malvolio ends the play with his issues unresolved. His last line before exiting is, "Ill be revenged on the whole pack of you." I wonder if Shakespeare was commenting on the increasingly serious division in English culture at the time. Interestingly, though Malvolio here as elsewhere is portrayed as kind of villainous, there's nothing actually in the text that indicates he's such a bad guy, certainly not deserving the treatment he receives from Sir Toby and his comrades. He wouldn't have been trying to woo Olivia if he didn't believe he'd received a letter from her indicating her affection. I feel bad for him, a feeling enhanced by the unresolved nature of his story. He's punished for basically not being as perfect as he thinks he is--in fact, either way you look at it, whether you're meant to sympathise with him or not, the story seems to be critical of puritanism.

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