Kenneth Branagh, the Best Friend of Shakespeare Students, and his Production of Twelfth Night

As a misty-eyed goodbye to this semester’s Shakespeare class, I thought that I would write a more casual blog post than I usually do.

When you are a college student enrolled in a Shakespeare class, you have a few options for learning the subject material. The first option, and the route which is sadly most commonly take, is to read the “No Fear” or SparkNotes condensations of Shakespeare’s works. To me, this is reprehensible – a true sin against the gods of literature. The second, and more morally acceptable option, is to read the text straight from the textbook. While this might further a student’s understanding of the plot (many students will find plots easier to follow in text), it seriously detracts from the student’s ability to appreciate the staging aspect of the plays. A close alternative, the audiobook, also suffers from this limitation. It should seem, then, that the final option, a well-directed theatrical production (perhaps accompanying the text) would be the best option, and this is the route which I chose to take throughout the semester. There is an issue in this, however – the student is taking this course in college, and the student is therefore poor (or cheap) and can not (or will not) purchase the more recent renditions of Shakespeare’s works. At least not legally, that is. Where then does the college student turn? He turns to YouTube, that most glorious and gleaming facet of the diamond that is the internet. When he types in the name of any Shakespeare play, what is the first rendition to appear in the search results? The first result is almost always the Kenneth Branagh version. The Branagh renditions of Shakespeare’s plays are truly something special. They come as close to the expected realization of a Shakespeare play as any other version, seeming to follow some archetype stored away at the back of every human mind. In the casting, staging, and costuming, Branagh channels exactly what is expected from a Shakespeare play. For the modern viewer, and indeed many of my contemporaries, this can seriously hinder the enjoyment of a performance. But for those well-versed in his productions, each entry in his Shakespeare series is as familiar and enjoyable as the last.

Take, for example, Branagh’s rendition of Twelfth Night. In conversation with my fellows in English 206, I have heard this production cast down as being bland, boring, typical, and every synonym thereof. While I can not say that I entirely disagree with these statements, I would add that I do not believe that being boring, bland, or typical makes Branagh’s Twelfth Night unenjoyable. Quite the contrary, have watched the Branagh rendition of every previously read play in the class, I found Twelfth Night to be an absolutely sublime production. The casting was typical for that of Branagh film, apart from the fact that it did not star Branagh himself in some way. The actors, with the exception of Frances Barber, were pretty much unrecognizable and did not add anything special to their parts. Each actor played his or her role exactly as one would expect them too, with no flair or passion. Excellent! The staging was extremely typical of a Branagh production. This rendition takes place in what seems to be a snowy, Renaissance period Adriatic town named Illyria – the sets were few in number, small in size, and visually appealing. Because of this, the story was easy to follow and no confusion was had from sudden place changes or, God forbid, wide angle camera shots! Indeed, the camera work and blocking for this rendition was exceedingly bland. Characters entered and exited as they would on a stage, not taking advantage of the fact that they were in a closed studio, and the camera made no special efforts for interesting shots. The pictures, done in still camera, almost always followed the actor who was speaking, and the most radical camerawork attempted was a zoom in. This lack of camera flare also added to the viewing ease of the film: no panning hand cams, no lost viewers.

Finally, of course, comes the costuming. This is the one area of the film wherein I do have some concerns. The costume director seemed to be confused with the setting of the play. As previously stated, the production seems to be set in Renaissance times, as that is what the score (many proud Renaissance galliards and dances) and many of the costumes seem to convey. There a few costumes, however, which suggest otherwise. Feste, who costume looks straight out of a Boy George cover band, appears to be dressed in 18th century garb not unlike that of a pirate. His hair is long an unkempt and his face unshaven. Now sure, one could easily mistake the costumes of the 18th century for the 16th or 17th centuries, not much happened in male fashion in those two periods, but Olivia’s costuming is just not correct. Olivia, who is dressed as a mourner for much of the film, wear what seems to be a black Victorian period dress and veil. The costuming then, does not wholly agree with itself or the setting of the play.

Overall, Branagh’s Twelfth Night is much like the rest of his productions: bland but reliable. Yes, though many aspects of his renditions are nothing special, eliciting no squeals of excitement due to casting, setting, or costuming, Branagh gets the message across very well. So, what we have here is like an Asian car: it’s not particularly beautiful to look at, fun to drive, or comfortable to sit in, but it will always get you where you need to go. However, if you are not a destitute college kid, and can afford (or have the will power) to buy some of the more recent versions (the German and Italian supercars of the previously analogy), I would highly recommend them.

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