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Twelfth Night On Screen

Adaptations of Shakespeare's sublime cross-dressing comedy

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Presumed to have been written shortly after Hamlet and As You Like It, and known to have been performed in early 1602, Twelfth Night has long been one of Shakespeare's most enduringly popular plays and is considered by many to be his most perfectly constructed comedy. Based on Plautus' Menaechmi and a 16th-century Italian play The Deceived, it harks back to early farces like The Comedy of Errors (also sourced from Menaechmi) in its convoluted tale of multiple mistaken identities while anticipating the final 'romances', Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest in its profound and searching insight into human nature.

Befitting its status as one of Shakespeare's best-loved plays, Twelfth Night has had nine full-length British screen adaptations, eight for television and a 1996 feature film. The first broadcast was in Spring 1939, with Dallas Bower supervising a stage production starring Peggy Ashcroft (Viola), Michael Redgrave (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) and Esmond Knight (Orsino), which proved so popular that it was retransmitted twice that same year. A subsequent BBC production, shown on 6 January 1950, was adapted and produced by Robert Atkins and starred Barbara Lott (Viola), John Biggerstaff (Valentine) and Terence Morgan (Orsino), and the series The World's A Stage, a collaboration between the BBC and the Young Vic, broadcast the letter scene in 1953. All the above were live broadcasts, and no recordings appear to have been made.

Not to be outdone, Associated-Rediffusion produced its own version which ITV broadcast on 18 March 1959. The production was directed by Roger Jenkins and starred Laurence Hardy (Sir Toby Belch), John Wood (Malvolio), Murray Hayne (Orsino), Sally Home (Viola) and Emrys James (Feste). Made for the self-explanatory For Schools afternoon slot, this 75-minute reduction of the play was the final broadcast in a nine-part series that also examined various aspects of Twelfth Night, its performance and the cultural and historical background. Presented by John Westbrook, the first 28-minute weekly programme was shown on 21 January 1959.

ITV was also behind the next television version, one of the most distinguished. Adapted for ATV from John Dexter's stage production and broadcast on 12 July 1970, it attracted most attention for its casting of the hugely experienced Shakespeareans Alec Guinness (Malvolio), Ralph Richardson (Sir Toby Belch) and Joan Plowright (Viola) opposite Cockney entertainer and Shakespeare newcomer Tommy Steele as Feste, a combination that turned out to be surprisingly fruitful.

The BBC's Play of the Month slot regularly scheduled Shakespeare, and on 14 May 1974 they broadcast a Regency-dress production of Twelfth Night shot on location at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. David Giles directed Charles Gray (Malvolio), Janet Suzman (Viola), Marilyn Taylerson (Olivia), Bryan Marshall (Orsino) and Anne Stallybrass (Maria).

The BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation was broadcast on Twelfth Night itself, 6 January 1980. Directed by John Gorrie and starring Alec McCowen (Malvolio), Felicity Kendal (Viola), Sinead Cusack (Olivia), Annette Crosbie (Maria) and Robert Hardy (Sir Toby Belch), it was a lively, well-cast production that was generally regarded as one of the cycle's most successful achievements.

30 December 1988 saw ITV broadcast Thames Television's adaptation of Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre production that was originally performed at Riverside Studios. Branagh himself did not appear, but the play was well served by Frances Barber (Viola), Richard Briers (Sir Toby Belch) and Christopher Ravenscroft (Orsino), with Anton Lesser's Feste coming in for particular praise.

The huge and unexpected success of Branagh's feature film of Much Ado About Nothing (US/UK, 1993) encouraged Trevor Nunn to mount the first British cinema film of Twelfth Night three years later, for the same production company. Updated to the eighteenth century and selfconsciously packaged as a youth attraction in the wake of 1994 cross-dressing comedy hits The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Australia), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and The Birdcage (both US, and all three of which were mentioned on at least one poster), it was a box-office disappointment but a critical success, thanks to a strong cast that included Nigel Hawthorne (Malvolio), Helena Bonham Carter (Olivia), Richard E.Grant (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Mel Smith (Sir Toby Belch), Imelda Staunton (Maria), Toby Stephens (Orsino), Imogen Stubbs (Viola) and Ben Kingsley (Feste).

But the most imaginative recent adaptation was the one broadcast by Channel Four on 5 May 2003. Directed by Tim Supple and starring Parminder Nagra (Viola), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Orsino), Michael Maloney (Malvolio) and Richard Bremmer (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), it was a modern-dress, overtly multicultural production (complete with interpolated Hindi dialogue) that turned Viola and Valentine into Indian asylum seekers. Although not ideal for beginners - prior knowledge of the text is necessary to understand many of Supple's subtler allusions - it's a surprisingly rare instance of a television production attempting to be more creative with Shakespeare than merely presenting the text.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Twelfth Night (1970)

Twelfth Night (1970)

Acclaimed television adaptation with Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness

Thumbnail image of Twelfth Night (1988)

Twelfth Night (1988)

TV version of Kenneth Branagh's acclaimed stage production

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