Twelfth Night – ATV, British TV

ATV British TV (1969) – Made for television

VIOLA: Joan Plowright
FESTE: Tommy Steele
DUKE ORSINO: Gary Raymond
MALVOLIO:  Alec Guinness (not yet “Sir”)
SIR TOBY BELCH: Sir Ralph Richardson
OLIVIA: Adrienne Corri
SIR ANDREW AGUECHEEK: John Moffatt
MARIA: Sheila Reid
ANTONIO: Kelsey Olson
SEBASTIAN: Joan Plowright
DIRECTOR: John Sichel (John Dexter’s production)
OTHER: Christopher Timothy

This was probably the first version I ever saw, long long ago on a tv station far, far away from what it is now (probably A&E, which used to take the “A” part of its name seriously) (I saw Baryshnikov on A&E, for heaven’s sake.  I know, I know, I rant every time I bring up the network – but from Balanchine’s Firebird to Dog the Bounty Hunter?  Really?).  I loved Tommy Steele already from Finian’s Rainbow – I love, love that musical (and need to Netflix it), the music is a joy, and his Og the leprechaun is darlin’.  Internet searches in the course of this project have shown that he’s a love-hate kind of guy – either people adore him as I do, or hate the sight of him.  Me, I think he’s perfect for Feste.  I only wish they had used him better.  He could have been amazing.  Yes, he sings, and sings wonderfully – but my personal preference would have been for a Feste a little closer to Og – not quite human.  Fey.  Unpredictable.  For me, the performances of the Fool that take the character to a few steps outside the ordinary – Maia Guest, of course, and David Patrick Kelly (and this is one reason Anton Lesser was a disappointment) – are the most successful, the ones that play him as fey and not quite domesticated.

I mention natural body language elsewhere (BBC) – that’s nowhere to be seen here.  This is perilously close to Shakespeare as parodied by Robin Williams’s John Keating: “Aow, Titus, bring your sword hithah!”  – the kind of Shakespeare that makes teenaged boys cringe.  It’s Performed rather than performed, and from Joan Plowright’s soulful upward gaze to the seriously and truly horrendous Dutch-boy wigs – nightmare-inducing on Sir Andrew Aguecheek, particularly – it’s not conducive to settling in for a good time with the Bard.  All part of the time in which it was made, I suppose – pity.

Christopher Timothy

Actually, Joan Plowright’s soulful upward gazes got right on my nerves.  All of them.  Hers was a passive Viola, not exactly the girl I’m used to seeing from most of the other productions; it’s amazing how with the same words and same (albeit limited) stage direction a character’s personality can vary so wildly.  This Viola is reactive – and actually one of the things that was changed in this production which I liked bolsters that.  I made the note that it was a “nice choice to have her witness the end of Orsino’s scene and decide she will serve him (explains the decision nicely)”, but where the usual placement of this decision – on the beach after the Captain has told her about where they are and who Orsino is – gives her the appearance of swift and active (proactive) decisiveness, Joan Plowright’s Viola sees him first, and, presumably, falls in love at first sight.  Ordinarily she makes the decision to save her own skin, sight unseen: she’s just washed ashore in an alien place, and she remembers her father talking about this Duke – she’s heard good things, she can’t serve Olivia, so she’ll disguise herself and go to him.  Then she falls in love with him.  Joan Plowright’s V drifts into town, sees Orsino’s first scene, either falls for him or gains enough first-hand evidence, and, with him all but right in front of her, decides that’s what she’ll do.  To me, it actually weakens the character, now that I’ve thought about it in a wider context.

Alec Guinness – here not yet knighted, even though it feels funny not to say “Sir Alec” – is a properly sniffy Malvolio; Sir Ralph Richardson is a completely different sort of Sir Toby from the rest, a tall and lanky Don Quixote figure.  Gary Raymond is Orsino here, memorable primarily, I’m afraid, for that wig and … those tights.  My goodness.  Adrienne Corri is languid and gorgeous, in contrast to the pert and vivacious (and much younger) Mary.  Sir Andrew, played by John Moffatt, is every bit as effete as he ought to be – on him the wig is appropriate.  Overall, the production does its best to be family-friendly, minimizing the bawdiness as much as possible – though Sir Ralph Richardson pushes the envelope.  Unfortunately, much of the rest of the humor is deadened too, and the rest of the emotions.  It begins with Viola and the sailors coming in from the purported shipwreck, dry and calm and pristine, not a wrinkle or a tear or a water stain to be found.  And so it proceeds, until at the very end Feste is shut out – the door literally shut in his face as the rest of the celebrants go into Olivia’s house, and he sings his closing song mournfully.  A sad way to end a comedy …

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