A Review of Kenneth Branagh’s Production of Twelfth Night

As cynical as it may sound, I did not expect to be genuinely affected by Twelfth Night.  As with most of Shakespeare’s plays, especially his comedies, this play is best seen, not simply read.  Even so, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself intellectually and emotionally invested in Kenneth Branagh’s televised production of Twelfth Night, first broadcast in the United Kingdom on December 30, 1988.  What minor liberties it took to adapt the play effectively were balanced by its respect for and tasteful treatment of the source material.

Since the original play does not offer much historical context, setting and costuming is at the mercy of the given director or troupe.  Branagh elects to place the story in a Napoleonic/Dickens setting as evidenced by the servants’ garb and Sir Andrew’s cavalry uniform.  Orsino’s court is blue-lit and cold while Olivia’s house is colorful from the beginning and gradually more cheerful.  Such a portrayal of Illyria still lends itself well to Shakespeare’s humor while making it more recognizable to a television audience at Christmas time.

As with any all productions of Shakespeare’s work, Branagh’s version of Twelfth Night is not without its larger changes, the most significant of which effect the pacing but not the plot.  The opening scene of the production is actually the second scene of the play; scenes 2 and 1 of Act I are switched, making the first character onscreen be Viola played by Frances Barber.  In a similar manner, the first two scenes of Act II are swapped so that Christopher Hollis’ Sebastian appears sooner.  I find these decisions forgivable since they highlight the significance of the twin characters.  Other alterations include the omission of the Priest character in Acts IV and V, the inclusion of Fabian in Act II, scene 3, clarity on Antonio’s fate at the end of the story, and a noticeably different depiction of Feste’s contribution to the story.  Because he passes out from drink before Toby and Maria plot their revenge against Malvolio, he remains unaware of their designs, playing along only for the money.  He subsequently believes Malvolio to be mad until he learns the truth and apologizes for participating in the scheme.  Character motivation aside, the source material is almost completely intact with only a handful of lines cut overall.

As much as I could say about the technical aspects of the production, I would consider them inconsequential if the finished product was unenjoyable.  Any and every play is made or broken by the actors’ performances.  In Twelfth Night’s case, I put a lot of stock in how much I can suspend my disbelief about Viola and Sebastian’s physical similarity.  Thankfully, Barber and Hollis look sufficiently alike.  Better yet, Barber’s Viola is surprisingly sympathetic in her love of Orsino (Christopher Ravenscroft) and sincerely uncomfortable in her confrontations with Olivia (Caroline Langrishe).  James Saxon as Toby and James Simmons as Andrew are entertaining without being too raucous as to distract from the main plot.  Richard Briers’ Malvolio is equal parts delightfully detestable and tragically pitiful.  Out of all the performances, however, Anton Lesser as Feste was the scene-stealer.  Wondrously melancholy and wise, he speaks wittily and sings serenely, guiding the play to its happy ending with endearing tenderness.

Kenneth Branagh’s reputation for treating Shakespeare’s work reverently is well represented in his version of Twelfth Night.  Faithful to the original work but readily accessible to modern audiences, Shakespeare’s Christmas comedy finds a home on TV and home video.

~Mich Walter

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