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Twelfth Night is often used by English teachers as the perfect introduction to Shakespeare's comedies. Though the plot is convoluted (to say the least), with two mistaken identities, one actor portraying more than one character (and at least one other adopting a rather useless disguise to comedic effect), and more mismatched lovers than you shake a couplet at, the language, though as beautifully expressive as Shakespeare always is, is considerably more accessible to modern ears than some of The Bard's other works. Twelfth Night's examination of gender roles wrapped around some finely wrought wordplay about the vagaries of love reveals unusual depth for a genre which was most probably in its day seen as a passing trifle. In fact Twelfth Night has proven so malleable for modern audiences that it's been adapted into at least two musicals (including the late 60s rock musical "Your Own Thing" and "Play On," which utilizes Duke Ellington tunes). This 1969 British television adaptation may be a bit lean on the physical production side, but it's a glorious interpretation with a knockout cast, and it's great that it's finally being released on DVD.
Twelfth Night (referring to the end of the Christmas dodecagon) concerns shipwrecked Viola (Joan Plowright), who lands in the imaginary realm of Illyria (though there was indeed a real region by this name). Believing her twin brother Sebastian to be dead, she rightly assumes she will manage better in this new land as a male, and disguises herself as Cesario, who quickly becomes a page in the home of Duke Orsino (Gary Raymond). The Duke is enamored of Olivia (Adrienne Corri) and sends Cesario/Viola to be his messenger of love. Of course, in typical Shakespearian fashion, Olivia promptly falls for Cesario, believing "him" to be a man. Meanwhile, Viola is secretly pining after the Duke. Confused yet? Well it only gets more complicated when Viola's twin Sebastian, "not quite dead yet" to quote those other English poets, Monty Python, shows up and enters the scene. While all of this is unfolding, there's a deliciously low comedy subplot involving Olivia's steward Malvolio (Sir Alec Guinness), who is being fooled by Olivia's uncle, Toby Belch (Sir Ralph Richardson) and a court jester/musician, Feste (Tommy Steele), into believing Olivia is in love with him.
Though this précis may sound like it's hopelessly complicated, Twelfth Night is actually very smooth going, with all relationships clear every step of the way. Plowright, who has become known to most modern audiences for her later in life work, here is a winsome and, frankly, not particularly attractive youth, which helps play into her ability to pass herself off as male. With a husky low voice sonorously giving life to Shakespeare's immortal text, she brings a starry-eyed quality to Cesario that is very winning. When she appears toward the end of the play as twin brother Sebastian, sporting a swarthy Egyptian-base makeup and speaking in even lower tones, the illusion is not entirely convincing, but suffices well enough for Sebastian's brief scenes. Guinness is a pure delight as Malvolio, taking full use of Malvolio's fey quality as well as his narcissism. Watch the jaunty way Guinness hops about in the garden scene when he's reading the love letter ostensibly from Olivia; it's strangely reminiscent of the gallop he imbued his Jacob Marley with a year or so later in the musical Scrooge. Richardson is also broadly over-the-top, as well he should be, in his portrayal of Toby Belch, swaying to and fro when Belch has had a bit too much to drink (sometimes more than a bit too much), and making the most of the scenes where he is attempting to fool Malvolio. You know you're watching something made in 1969 when teen idol Tommy Steele is given second billing (above Richardson!) for the relatively minor role of Feste, the fool/jester of the piece. Steele, with his sideways smile and glint in his eye, pulls the role off surprisingly well and as Feste gets to sing the nice clown songs of Shakespeare, all made beautifully Elizabethan-sounding by composer Marc Wilkinson, who also provides a charming underscore. (Steele plays a patently out of place guitar in one where there should be a lute, but you can't have everything).
Though John Sichel directed this television version, major credit should probably be given to producer John Dexter, whose prodigious mountings of many plays, including the Olivier Othello which was filmed in 1965, have become legend. There's not much to the physical production, as might be expected of television fare, and yet it really doesn't matter when you get right down to it. You have the language, which is unsurpassed, and a uniquely distinguished cast, which makes the most of it. There's really not much else you could ask for.
This full frame color special was obviously mastered off of an old 1/4 inch videotape and it shows. There are occasional slight tracking issues manifesting in brief horizontal lines across the image, and saturation is fairly poor, with colors having a pretty tepid look, especially in flesh tones and greens (reds still come through nicely). It's still perfectly watchable, however, and most viewers won't be disappointed.
There's little separation to speak of in this late 60s soundtrack, which may in fact be mono. There's also an annoying low frequency hum that resides in the background throughout, but which fades into near nothingness when dialogue and underscore are present. You will hear it quite clearly on the title cards that start each Act, however. Even with these caveats, all dialogue and music is still perfectly clear.
None, unfortunately. It would have been fun to see an examination of other "cross-dressing" Shakespeare comedies for comparison.
If you've never taken the plunge into Shakespeare territory, Twelfth Night is a pretty easy way to start. Full of fun buffoonery and the classic trope of mistaken identities, it provides laughs while it occasionally provokes a little thought along the way. This cast is among the best ever assembled to perform this work, and they all do fine jobs. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet