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Our Bottom Line:
This isn’t the best production of Twelfth Night I’ve seen. It’s worth a look, if only for the historical perspective it gives of styles of English Shakespearean productions in the 60’s / 70’s.
Our Review: (***)
We’re running a prepared playreading of Twelfth Night this coming Sunday (17th Jan 2016), and I’m playing Malvolio. I’m finding it difficult to get to terms with his character. My head says he’s a puritan and should be played as a puritan, but it’s just not working. In desparation I turned to a video of Twelfth Night I don’t know – from Granada TV, and dating from 1970. Joan Plowright plays Viola, Ralph Richardson – Sir Toby, and, to the point, Alec Guiness plays Malvolio. These are all revered names from my childhood, though in 1970 I was more interested in being in love than watching plays about love. So I switched on the DVD player and TV with anticipation.
Anticipation quickly turned to disappointment. The titles rolled and we were presented with a painted stage backcloth representing Mont St Michel or equivalent.
I guess we’ve become so accepting of the high-quality production values of modern productions that we no longer find the production values of previous eras acceptable. I suppose that in 1970, TV directors and producers were still adjusting to the relatively new medium.
But more than this, how acting styles have changed! Of course, in 1970 Peter Hall had only just given up his 10-year stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Trevor Nunn had just taken over. Of course they had transformed the RSC, but that influence had still to spread across other theatres, and the old guard: Ralph Richardson; John Gielgud;Laurence Olivier; etc still played their, in their time, very successful styles.
But how did this affect the production of Twelfth Night?
Let’s start with the best. Joan Plowright gave a sterling performance of Viola. She caught the melancholy aspect of Viola beautifully. In fact, perhaps it went a little too far. She reminded me of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, with her despairing love for Gary Cooper.
And I missed Viola’s curiosity and humour. And why oh why did she spend so much time looking away from the people she was interacting with. Directorial fashion and the limitations of small 4×3 televisions, I guess.
The language was spoken beautifully – by Joan Plowright, by Ralph Richardson, by Alec Guiness, by the whole cast. It was spoken better than in nearly any modern production. But at what a cost! Acting seemed to be mainly a question of standing fairly still and speaking your lines. There was very little effective engagement with other members of the cast, and almost none at all with the audience. Modern productions put so much effort into making the physical being of the actors reflect what they are saying, and more importantly, what their characters are feeling.
Ralph Richardson (Sir Toby) and his sidekicks in that sub-plot Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Maria; and Fabian gave competent performances, but not more than competent. They were let down by the inclusion of a pop-star (Tommy Steele) as Feste. This must have been one of the first productions to use a star from outside Shakespearean acting to try and attract a larger audience, and it was unsuccessful. Twelfth Night, without a magical Feste, is barely Twelfth Night.
Still, I guess if it brings in an audience that otherwise wouldn’t see the production, perhaps it is a price worth playing. Tommy Steele’s singing was excellent, but unfortunately the same can’t be said for his acting.
And Malvolio? Alec Guinness gave a good performance of the character. I have seen lots of productions of Twelfth Night – it is one of my two favourite Shakespearean comedies – but most of them have near-misses as Malvolio: the best was Matt Davies in a Shakespeare @ Traquair production you won’t have seen; Stephen Fry came close in The Globe’s recent production; Nigel Hawthorne was not at all bad in Trevor Nunn’s film; and now Alec Guiness gave another, nearly very good performance.
He caught the pomposity of the character, but perhaps not his smugness. Most disturbingly, his upset in the cellar scene with Feste failed to work at all, and so his call for revenge in the final scene as the marital confusion resolves itself happily, also was not entirely convincing.
What it did show me was that perhaps it doesn’t help to see Malvolio as a Puritan. Much more important is his social climbing, his smugness, and his putting down of the other characters in the play. As Maria says:
“The devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time-pleaser, an affectioned ass that cons state without book, and utters it by great swathes, the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him, and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.”
So it’s back to the drawing board for me and Malvolio, and I owe it to Alec Guiness’s portrayal to recognize that it needs a different approach.
But for me, the most interesting reflection from this production was to realize just how much productions are set in the theatrical conventions of their times. Of course story-telling in a theatre is not ‘real’, and is bound by a set of conventions which the audience of the time is happy to accept, but a few years later looks more than dated.
I grew up revering Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. I moved on to the ‘Naturalistic’ style of Peter Hall / Trevor Nunn / John Barton and the host of actors at the RSC, and now, that too, turns out to be a style which is slowly declining and being replaced by a new style. Plus ca change….
Though this isn’t the best production of Twelfth Night I’ve seen, it is worth a look, if only for the historical perspective it gives of styles of English Shakespearean productions in the 60’s / 70’s.