21 Nov


(Or in Nunn’s case, the eye’s the thing)


A Comparison between William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night and Trevor Nunn’s film production of the same name. In particular Act 1, Scene 3 and the exchange between Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek.




               The Hollywood revisionists, in my opinion, would have us, the paying-public, believe that Shakespeare originally wrote for what they ignorantly insist were uneducated audiences; the plays performed for the working people of London, the loiterers, bed-pressers and bear-baiters of Southwark and their no-betters, the hereditary in-bred gentry. Time and again we’re served images of ill-dressed drunkards whoring and snoring their way through what we today would consider classic performances. Such is the nostalgia for Shakespeare’s plays that the Globe Theatre has been rebuilt in London close to its original site and where, during the season, they’re performed for paying tourists. We know that the streets of London weren’t as Richard Whittington imagined paved with gold and that to see London was to smell it, but it would appear that the revised history that we’re offered is exactly that, the majority of factual information and contemporary language cut to the screen editors floor or quietly moldering on what used to pass for library shelves. Shakespeare’s language has been slashed and burned, unnecessarily embellished, rewritten and offered in brilliant Technicolor to appease the contemporary market. Although Renaissance audiences would be wowed by the spectacle that is film, they’d be less impressed with that which we hold to be possibly the most beautiful prose ever written in the English language as sadly they’re missing. According to Sean Coughlan, a journalist writing for the B.B.C., in his article on current educational standards of British youth under a common core curriculum, England is now 22nd in the world out of the leading 24 nations in literacy. A sad claim indeed and only bettered by their American cousins who were 24th. Education during the time of Elizabeth was highly valued and under the grammar school system, children were offered Latin, Greek and French. Although there was more emphasis on reading than on writing due to the cost of materials the average student was no slouch and therefore the language of Shakespeare would not have been such a stretch of cerebral elasticity as it sometimes appears to be to us today. By comparing the written play of Twelfth Night with a film bearing the same name it’s possible to discern where language has given way to style and art, and where entertainment is enjoyed more by the eyes than the ears. The film by Trevor Nunn does the original play little justice but is a cornucopia of sound and color and is a pleasant way to while away 134 minutes “for want of other idleness.”(1.5.63)

               Nunn’s production is rich in costume, sound, and visual brilliance. The actors are world class and clearly no expense has been spared. In fact the only thing that seems to have been spared is the language. Act 1, scene 3 is our introduction to the characters of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek, two of Shakespeare’s’ most amusing characters. Sir Toby is, as his title suggests, a member of the gentry and cousin to one of the plays main protagonists, the Lady Olivia.  Toby is a wit, with charm and grace whose faults are many and whose drunkenness is profound. For whatever reason we discover him under the care of his cousin, snoring in her garden, drunk from the previous evenings libations. Nunn portrays him in the scene as an inebriate still holding a bottle and who, due to the late hour he’s kept, has been locked out of the house and forced to sleep outside. The original text is not adhered to and Nunn opts to skip to line 14 of the original dialogue and instead of Belch being the first to speak we’re introduced to Maria, a ladies maid. In the authentic text Belch utters the immortal words, “I am sure that cares and enemy to life,” (1.3.2) no doubt performed in an intoxicated manner to which Maria replies, “By my troth Sir Toby, you must come in of nights.”(1.3.3) Shakespeare shows in words what Nunn chooses to portray. The film audience has to visually digest the fact that Belch is a drunk by the proffered images, where as our Shakespearian seat-warmers are offered a man staggering onto the stage waving a bottle and ranting. Nunn’s portrayal is flaccid and does little to inject action or comedic effect whereas Belch, as a Falstaffian figure dominating the stage, would’ve been hilarious. Maria’s indictment is considered to be important enough to be included however, not until later in the scene, towards its end, and then spoken by Sir Toby to Sir Andrew. Nunn decides to negate the humorous exchange between Maria and Sir Toby and the rich language steeped in metaphor and double entendre is completely negated. One has to ask oneself, why? The deleted exchange, although recognizable as modern English, is rich because of its Elizabethan qualities. Clever and witty, “l will confine no fitter than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in.”(1.3.10) These utterances are complete, drunken, rubbish but they’re funny. Nunn instead of showing the dulled wits of a sharp man simply shows the figure of a drunk being hauled off on the shoulders of two servants.

               Enter Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek a man as thick as two-short-planks with the intellectual edge of a stick of butter; a comic portrayal of the upper class who, despite their airs and graces, are portrayed as idiots. Quite a brave move by Shakespeare considering the censorship of the Master-of- Revels but clearly one he got away with the. The administrator was probably in on the joke and equally aware of their betters not being so much better? Sir Andrew is a moneyed and titled idiot, the buffoon in the comic duo, a coupling of the straight and funny man that we’ve seen time and again in the likes of Laurel and Hardy and such. Although Sir Andrew is a fool, he has money and this is why Belch plays him like a viol-de-gamboys. In the original text Toby describes the attributes of Sir Andrew casting him “as tall a man as any’s in Illyria” (1.3.20) and is quickly rebutted by the maid Maria. The exchange is quick and witty and the characters are very swiftly defined. The original text is brisk, sharp and cutting but in Nunn’s production it’s completely ignored and the very best is parsed to the point of non-existence. Instead we are to rely on back ground music, the cheap giggles of bit part actresses and facial expression. In this aspect the film is more of a movie than a talkie and Nunn neglects to flesh out his characters. The façade of Shakespeare’s creation is as deep as table-spilt coffee and such a waste of comic genius. Again why? Why would the director dispense with over twenty lines of dialogue in favor of facial expression? Could it be true that a picture paints a thousand words or does Nunn decide not to tax his audience? The thing with Shakespeare is that it takes a little effort, as do most things worth having. Knowledge of Shakespeare requires historical research, a sense of the historical period, and also to have actually read the plays and discovered the language. Clearly Nunn’s ideal wasn’t to achieve celluloid prowess but to produce a product. There again, wasn’t that what Shakespeare was also trying to do? We know that in the enclosed spaces of the Black Friars Shakespeare added lighting and music to his performances but his plays were performed as were. Even in a more intimate setting where theatrics were possible the plays were still true to themselves. Unfortunately in Nunn’s production we’re given spectacle and not much else.

               Maria, the ladies maid and admirer of Sir Toby in the original copy has an exchange with Sir Andrew that is lyrically composed and worthy of a second listen. Her wit is acute and her jests acerbic, against which our errant Knight has little chance. Performed on the stage in front of an audience the exchange would’ve been extremely amusing. In Nunn’s production it’s all but nonexistent. The lines are completely negated and the scene is as barren as the jests at the end of Maria’s fingers. In the original it helps to prove what a fool Sir Andrew is but in the film we’re once again exposed to very little of the original. An Elizabethan audience would no doubt have delighted in the verbal duel and loved the depth of character portrayal. Any experience, in my opinion, at a theatre is so much more profound than a viewing. The sights and the sounds, the atmosphere, all help to make theatre a rich spectacle. Rather than the brain lapsing into Theta and Delta, whilst being stimulated by popcorn and cola, the mind through live performance flourishes in the Alpha. This is the obvious difference between Nunn’s confection and Shakespeare’s sustenance.

               Sir Toby’s final exchange with Sir Andrew where they discuss his dancing ability and the Knight’s confession that he is “a fellow of the strangest mind” (1.2.109) is lost in the production. Nunn chooses instead to display and idiotic dance sequence that is neither amusing nor bright; a parody of a mad dance performed by a fool rather than an exchange of minds in a conflict of adept brilliance. The dance would probably have been more fitting for the stage and the exchange better for the film, and yet that isn’t the case.

               The film although it adds something to the play, takes from it so much more than it gives. The colorful language, depth of meaning and inside jokes are forfeited for visual opulence. When one reads a book it engenders thought and creates and individual reality whereas film offers generic space where one is forced to endure the imagination of another. How often have we heard that the book was so much better than the film? In Nunn’s reappraisal of Shakespeare the director loses hands down. If one where to see the film without having read the play, or watched it merely without truly understanding it, then one would probably come away thinking that they’d just witnessed a period drama rather than enjoying a timeless piece from a dramatic historical period. The reason we remember the Renaissance is not because of film directors but instead thanks to writers such as Shakespeare and Johnson. Henry V was all but forgotten and yet thanks to Bill is now perceived as one of the most English of English kings despite his military incompetence and near defeat at Agincourt. On the other hand, we the British love an underdog as evidenced by our victory at Dunkirk and Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade!

               Nunn has taken a mainstream piece and sidelined it into something cheery and colorful. Thankfully the play will be remembered for itself and not for the inept, portrayal of face making actors who have so few lines they couldn’t help but con them well. When one compares Nunn’s cinematic production with that of Kenneth Branagh’s we see a world of difference in portrayal. Branagh’s play is austere and all the action unlike Nunn’s travelogue, takes place on one set. The costumes are basic, as is the stage, but it’s a worthy performance in that unlike Nunn’s is truer to the original text. In Branagh’s Twelfth Night, although in very little else he’s produced in my opinion, he offers something memorable, a play within a film. Nunn offers a distraction.



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