Critical Analysis Of The Film Adaptation Of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare portrays gender as an act, the characters change costumes to disguise themselves as different genders. For the purposes of this essay, it will be referring to the 1996 film adaptation directed by Trevor Nunn, starring Toby Maguire and Helena Bonham Carter. This is a great film version of the play which sets the story in the Victorian era, while emphasising the comedic plot themes.

The movie doesn’t add many changes to the initial plot and most of the differences happen early on. For example, Shakespeare didn’t set his play in the nineteenth century, and Viola and Sebastian are not portrayed as a shipboard comedy act in the play. Some dialogue was also added, removed, simplified and clarified. Nunn has actually followed the accepted stage tradition of setting Shakespeare’s works in other eras; and many modern interpretations do this to demonstrate what is timeless about them.

Interestingly, Nunn creates a situation of political tension between Illyria and the country where Viola and Sebastian come from. Viola (disguised as Cesario) is often in very personal places with Orsino, and this adds to the humour. In one scene, Orsino is naked in the bath and Cesario has to sit next to him. Viola is therefore placed in a difficult position as she can see the naked man she loves while also trying to be advising him on how to pursue Olivia. The humour in this scene is highlighted as this film adaptation focuses on comedy.

Another big difference from play to film is that Nunn chose not to emphasise the same-sex elements in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare plays with sexual attraction when Antonio falls in love with Sebastian, and Olivia has feelings for Viola as Cesario. Many modern Shakespeare scholars accept that Shakespeare himself was bisexual and these elements are interesting, so it’s surprising that Nunn decided to downplay rather than to emphasise them.

Viola is in love with the duke because she finds herself that way after being his boy servant, disguised as ‘Cesario.’ She disguises herself as a man because she needs to buy some time to figure things out, but it could also be because she can’t face a world without her brother. She finds herself with Olivia, who is mourning the death of her father and brother. We never learn the cause of her brother’s death, but the important idea is how Twelfth Night shows how foolish Olivia’s behaviour concerning her brother is. She refuses Orsino’s advances because she is in mourning. It’s unclear why Viola falls in love with Orsino. It may be because he’s passionate and poetic, but he seems to be self-absorbed, moody and sexist when he says women aren’t as strong or passionate as men. This makes Viola just as silly as all the other characters that fall for inappropriate partners. Love triangles appear as Olivia loves Viola who loves Orsino who loves Olivia.

The theatre version was much more genuine in its dramatisation. They performed it exactly how it might have been performed in Shakespeare’s time, even performing it in a reproduction of the theatre Shakespeare used for some of his performances. The fact that they only use men gives you more of an idea of how it might have been performed for the first time. The costumes are even made in the same way and from the same fabrics that were used back then. Also, there are no microphones or bright lights to light up the actors, like there are nowadays. The cinematic version looks more realistic but is very different from how it would have been performed originally. The female characters are played by women and the male characters by men. Since they can use lighting effects and different camera angles, we can see more of what the characters might see, instead of just sitting back and seeing the action from only one angle, which is what we do when we watch a play.

The theatre element of a performance is something you can’t get when watching a film or video at home. Although there were aspects of the film version that I preferred, like the sets and the visual action, as there was more to look at and more realism, part of the attraction of watching a live performance is seeing the different techniques the actors use to show what they are doing, and seeing the abstract parts that are hard to do in films. Also as the film version has been recorded it is something you can watch over and over again, seeing and getting more out of it each time, but in the stage production, you can only see it done that way once and can only focus on one bit at a time, so you may not see everything the characters do. However, one would still prefer the live performance of a play instead of watching the film at home.

The film emphasises the comedy of the play’s plot themes. One of the themes is love. For example, Viola bringing Orsino’s message to Olivia simply resulted in Olivia falling in love with her and Viola doesn’t blow her cover. Her cover of course being a devious disguise as a man. It’s genius, because actually, she is a woman. The job of a director is to take the text on the page and enhance it; add colour and life to it and turn it into something that is living and breathing. This involved a number of decisions like adding dialogue of Feste narrating the events, conflict between Illyria and Viola’s native country, setting the play in the nineteenth century and the shipboard comedy act. These decisions make each performance or film version of the play very different from every other.

The play focuses on the different techniques actors use to show what’s being done and how the play would’ve been performed in Shakespeare’s time. The play had an all-male cast to show what it was like when women weren’t allowed to perform, and the play was set in a modern reconstruction of The Globe Theatre, where his plays were performed. The actors wore the same costumes and clothing, and they learnt to play characters in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. The play was worth watching because the actors were fully able to present their characters and tell a story. The production succeeded in exploring music, clothing, dance and settings that were possible in 1601.

16 August 2021
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