Twelfth Night – Branagh/Thames Shakespeare

Branagh (1988) (Thames Shakespeare Collection)

Made for television?
VIOLA: Frances Barber
FESTE: Anton Lesser
DUKE ORSINO: Christopher Ravenscroft
MALVOLIO: Richard Briers
OLIVIA: Caroline Langrishe
MARIA: Abigail McKern
ANTONIO: Stuart McCreery
SEBASTIAN: Sebastian/Curio: Christopher Hollis
DIRECTOR: Paul Kafno; Producers: Paul Kafno, Ian Martin
OTHER: Paul Williams

The music for this staging is (as in Branagh’s other Shakespeares) by Patrick Doyle, except the Shakespearean ballad performed by Feste – “Come Away Death” – borrows an adapted melody from Paul McCartney’s song “Once Upon A Long Ago”. McCartney donated the melody for Kenneth Branagh’s original stage production of Twelfth Night, performed by the Renaissance Theatre Company, and allowed the melody to be used in the film version.

McCartney or no McCartney – I honestly hated this.  Once again I wanted to love it.  Come on – Kenneth Branagh and Shakespeare are like peanut butter and chocolate.  Patrick Doyle!  And Richard Briers!  And I loved the concept of Anton Lesser’s Feste.  And … But dear lord…

It’s kind of funny (funny strange, very definitely not funny … ha ha) that this was the only one – I think – in which there were references to the time of year of the title: instead of dodging about hedges the tricksters here kept a Christmas tree between them and Malvolio.

The only reason I might watch any of this again is that I just saw on imdb that Paul Williams has a role.  That Paul Williams?  Really?  That’s just bizarre enough to bring me back – briefly.

Actually, funnily enough, it seems that this was probably relabeled for DVD sales, with Branagh’s name writ larger all over it than back in ’88; he was not as prominent in the production of it, based on some places I’ve looked, as the big letters would have one think.  I like the idea that he wasn’t – his Much Ado is one of my favorite things in the world, and did a wonderful job of capturing the joy of the story, where this … did not.

This production, like Tim Supple’s, sucked every drop of joy out of the play.  There’s a quote I saved from the Cambridge University Press, via a very messy article on “Another feature is the genial spirit that pervades the piece . . . its tone of pure kindliness and pleasure.”  Not here.  None of the above.  Every scene takes place out of doors, in the courtyard and garden outside Olivia’s home or Orsino’s garden – despite the fact that the Twelfth Night part is taken seriously and everyone is bundled up, and in several scenes it snows.

And the weather is not the only chilly thing about it.  Olivia (Caroline Langrishe) is a stone cold bitch, with the tiniest of soft spots for Feste – not to be relied upon, because my impression of this Olivia is that she might yank her support again at any moment.  Malvolio (Richard Briers) is spiteful and vicious, and deserves what he gets – almost.  Uncle Toby (James Saxon) is just a drunk, Sir Andrew (James Simmons) is a young moron being fleeced for every cent he has, Orsino (Christopher Ravenscroft) is depressed and depressing, and Sebastian (Christopher Hollis) was such a non-entity that the actor did double duty as Curio.  I’d love to punch Maria in the face.

And Feste (Anton Lesser) … Oh my, Feste.  He looks great.  I love the long and wild hair and the costume.  He sounds great – he has an excellent voice and delivery.  But this Feste is depressed and angry and violent – outright scary in several scenes.  This is a Feste you don’t want to piss off, in plain American; this is a Feste whose life is screwed up, who should be in rehab and on antidepressants, and could use a couple of back-to-back courses on anger management.  There is, par for the course in this film, no joy in Feste, no fooling around in the Fool.

This all lends extra pain to the torture and release of Malvolio.  In other productions, Toby and company play their tricks to get revenge on a pompous twit who has wronged them and belittled them and just annoyed the hell out of them.  It starts out in high spirits – and in distilled spirits – and goes further than they meant.  In the “Branagh” version it starts out mean-spirited and only gets worse.  And when Briars as Malvolio is let out of his tiny cell, it’s one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen in a while: he’s bent, because there was not room to stand straight; he’s blinded by the winter daylight, because he was in the dark for so long; he’s filthy.  And he’s obviously injured.  This isn’t funny.  This isn’t a practical joke.  This is reason to call the police in and prosecute.  If there was any sign of remorse at any point in the film, I don’t remember it; that’s one more thing the Supple version had that this didn’t – Maria bursts into bitter tears toward the end.  To channel Kristin Chenoweth’s intro to HVSF: brightly – “It’s a comedy!”

The closest thing to a saving grace about the whole thing was Frances Barber as Viola.  I liked her a lot.  She was lovely; she was a lovely actor; she was the sole source of warmth in the thing.  She had a sparkle in her eyes, and inhabited Viola nicely – and made a natty Cesario: she made one of the best boys.  Unfortunately, she just wasn’t enough to remotely save this nasty mess.

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