Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night: Contemporary Film and Classic British Theatre
Nicholas R. Jones
Oberlin College

Jones, Nicholas R. "Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night: Contemporary Film and Classic British Theatre." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.1 (May, 2002): 1.1-38 <URL:

  1. Released amidst a flurry of innovative Shakespeare films, Trevor Nunn's 1996 film of Twelfth Night can seem stodgy, retro, or just dull in comparison. [1] It is, as Herb Coursen writes, "one of the more straightforward translations of a Shakespeare script to film" (199). Overshadowed in its time by William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 1996) and other popular Shakespeare films, Nunn's "shaded and subtle" work - the phrase is Samuel Crowl's (1997: 36) - deserves critical reconsideration. [2] It inhabits a complex ground between tradition and innovation, doing important cultural work with classic theatrical elements - ensemble acting, text-based line readings, and formal resolution. Laurie E. Osborne has recently shown how the film's careful editing practices foster audience involvement by developing the relationships among Viola and Sebastian and their lovers, Orsino and Olivia. [3] Here I would like to concentrate on how Nunn's use of the experienced and intelligent actor Ben Kingsley as an idiosyncratic and disturbing Feste grounds the film in contemporary issues of feminism, sexuality, and gender identity. Kingsley's Feste, like the film in general, occupies a critical perspective that unsettles the complacency that might otherwise accompany a classic period-based production.

    Filming the past, playing the text

  2. Nunn's film, on the surface, steers clear of the "cutting-edge": its style is verbal, meditative and restrained - in short, "British." The performances are muted, the text relatively undisturbed, the poetry well spoken and expressive, the cinematography unobtrusive. The film has a mellow, elegiac affect, like the watery autumn light in which it is filmed. [4] As in many "heritage" films, the past is foregrounded, most obviously through the Victorian setting: wool and starched linen, muskets, a billiard table, mounted cavalry, croquet, kitchens out of Upstairs / Downstairs - all in the elaborate social geography of an English country house and village. [5] Heritage films, in their commitment to the past, shy away from innovation, choosing to confirm rather than subvert the expectations of a classically literate audience. They present a world mediated by distance and literariness, isolated from surprises, kept polite by reliable, if old-fashioned social codes. [6] To some extent, that's true of Nunn's Twelfth Night: we enjoy looking for what we would expect to find in a period country house - servants in livery, crisp topiary, predictable if dispensable decorum. As Geoffrey Macnab puts it, "Olivia . . . and her entourage . . . dress and behave as if they've just escaped from some nearby Merchant-Ivory production" (60). Tensions are kept in check by the distance of heritage. Olivia's mansion, a prominent artifact in the film, has the neat readability and clear boundaries of a National Trust property. [7] The skirmishes of Orsino's army are well contained in a costume-drama past, far removed from the military horrors of the twentieth century. [8] However engaged we may be in the action of Twelfth Night, we may expect to walk out unscathed, have tea at some converted carriage house, and calmly re-read the Shakespeare play.

  3. But Nunn's film refuses to turn heritage into homage. [9] Though a sense of the past informs the film, that past is not simple: early-modern modes of plot and character collide with Victorian stage business and are transfigured by contemporary film techniques. [10] Catherine Belsey notes that unlike Elizabethan stage performance, film "tends to narrow plurality . . . to specify and fix a reading as its reading" (61-62). But there is a quality of openness in Nunn's use of the past that works against that narrowing. Malvolio's Elizabethan Puritanism is given a fin-de-siècle twist in his perusal of "L'Amour," which seems to be a Victorian soft-porn magazine; and the upward mobility associated with his "puritan" affiliations is grafted onto a distinctly nineteenth-century sexual fantasy as he embraces a marble nude statue. Viola's disguise subjects her not only to the gender dilemmas of the Shakespearean stage but also to that particular nineteenth-century masculinism, the men's club, with its cigars, wine, and billiards. Maria is both an Elizabethan, a conspirator in the patently stagy and clearly Shakespearean plot against Malvolio, and at the same time that most Victorian of creatures, a dependent woman with a "history." Olivia mourns like Mariana in the moated grange - richly, and with repeated Victorian rituals. These characters are all eminently Victorian. But like all Shakespearean roles, they have to answer to the theatrical, multi-vocal, carnivalesque Elizabethan text. Nunn's film opens rather than constricts, gleefully conspiring with Shakespeare to put these "Victorians" into situations that would not occur in a Victorian character-based novel. The statue Malvolio hugs is consistent with a Victorian country house, but the embrace is a zanier, more Elizabethan touch than we would expect in a novel or a traditional heritage film. Olivia, a richly velveted Victorian lady caught in the contradictions between her mourning and her desire, breaks with the conditions of the mise-en-scène, and announces a sudden character switch, with unmistakable Shakespearean theatricality: "Well, let it be!" (Nunn, 34).

  4. If Nunn's film is a heritage film, the Shakespearean text is what it particularly inherits. [11] The cast is chosen not just for their heritage film experience but also for their experience in articulating the verse and understanding the dramatic structures. Though there are many cuts, and a few additions, to the text, the film follows an "old-fashioned" aesthetic in treating the text with respect and clarity. In contrast, most recent films of Shakespeare have tended to concentrate on theoretical rather than theatrical engagements with text, often quite explicitly resisting the traditional ideas of text. Prospero's Books, for example, seems less interested in performing The Tempest than in re-defining Shakespearean text itself; painstakingly hand-written, digitized, put into motion, the text seems to be more an institution to be deconstructed than a medium for drama. Richard III spends much of its time surprising us with what it can do with the text - locating it in "Fascist England," mythifying it with a nexus of over-determining symbols, and creating new rhythms for it with its self-conscious cross-cutting. William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet signals its aggressiveness toward the theatricalized text even in its title, repunctuated with an ampersand/cross and "authorized" with the Bard's name; such aggressiveness continues in - or is, rather, inseparable from - the film itself with its obvious priority for quoting film styles rather than engaging Shakespeare's language. [12]

  5. I don't mean in any way to imply the failure of these films. They are exciting in themselves and as part of a movement, changing the relationship of Shakespeare and film and redefining the status of Shakespeare and his texts in contemporary culture. They mark a welcome alternative to the influential and markedly conservative Branagh films with their bluff, "English" Shakespeare. But these more daring films risk losing the resonance of the Shakespearean plays themselves. For all that Gielgud's accomplished voice fills Prospero's Books, the film hardly draws on - in fact, resists - the insights that Gielgud and other stage actors have gained about The Tempest in the many years of playing it. Similarly, even though the masterfully theatrical Ian McKellen dominates Richard III, the film sacrifices in its manic energy the theatrical and textual subtleties that such an actor is capable of. I would not want to forego the cinematic imagination of these films, nor would I pass up the way they grapple with issues of style, authority, textuality and ideology. But I would love to see other films as well: a film, for example, that might take The Tempest seriously as a text, using the intimacy of film to humanize the play's masque textures and penetrate the often-static surfaces of the characters. Or a Richard III that might incorporate the potent, but often-cut female characters as counter-agents to the monster Richard, and make cinematic action out of the patterned and formalistic language of that intricate play. Nunn's Twelfth Night, with its classic theatricality and its use of cinematic invention in the service of the text, is a film that may serve as an impetus for such explorations. [13] Nunn's film, though it is not unaware of theoretical and filmic concerns, interrupts a growing self-consciousness in Shakespeare films, and offers us some rewards for returning to a space where the text can resonate. [14]

  6. For Nunn's Twelfth Night, that "resonant space" is associated with post-1960 British theatre, in particular with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and its competitor and frequent imitator the National Theatre. [15] Several of the important figures in the film - Nunn himself, Nigel Hawthorne (Malvolio), Nicholas Farrell (Antonio), and Ben Kingsley (Feste) - are long-time members of the RSC and the National; Nunn refers to his cast as "immensely experienced in classical work" (Crowdus, 38). Actors with such backgrounds bring to the film a classic Shakespearean theatricality from their training in what Samuel Crowl called a "golden age" of London Shakespearean theatre (1992: 21), a time when, as Addenbrooke says, "the RSC actor . . . was an utterly dedicated artist who was equally at home in Shakespeare and modern drama - who could move from the complexity and precision of Shakespeare verse-speaking to the anarchic lunacy of the Marat-Sade with equal competence and assurance" (88). Others in the cast - Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham Carter, and Imelda Staunton - have more or less substantive experience in the RSC and the National. [16] These are not Shakespeare wannabes but veterans of classic Shakespeare theatre. As one reviewer put it, "the film succeeds in part due to Nunn's decision to ignore the box office lure of Hollywood stars, and to cast all the parts with outstanding British actors who can actually speak Shakespeare's lines with proper cadence and clarity.'' [17] That kind of verbal expertise, in contrast to the engaging but inexperienced line-speaking in the Luhrmann film, has - as the quotation implies - a double effect: both to place the film in a smaller cultural context (smaller, that is, than Hollywood and its appeal) and at the same time to use that context to give space to the text. [18]

  7. The RSC of the 1960s centred on the text-based study of classic texts. [19] Under the direction of John Barton, the RSC became famous for its "unique textual discipline" (Nunn, "Introduction," n.p.) - perceptive line readings, metaphors apparently invented on the spot, expressive blank verse, attention to silent characters , motivation through textual cues. [20] The company worked to wrest meaning from the often dense but always authoritative text: as Nunn says of that time, "my dictat at the RSC had been 'we change him [Shakespeare] at our peril'" (Nunn, "Introduction," n.p.). RSC audiences, like the company, tended to be knowledgeable about the texts, anticipating how a production might handle the cruxes. Commitment to text on the part of the RSC went along with an engagement with issues and politics in the outside world. In the RSC of the 1960s and 70s, Shakespeare and other classics - the other Elizabethans, Chekhov, the Greek tragedians - resonated in startling new ways with contemporary social and political concerns, especially to support a resistant critical discourse among academics, artists and students and agendas of liberal social action. While Nunn is mostly known today for musical entertainments like Cats, his work with the RSC in the '60s was far more politically conscious. While honouring the classic text, the company pioneered anti-war, feminist, Marxist, post-colonial interpretations of Shakespeare - the 1962 King Lear of Peter Brook (with Paul Scofield), the Wars of the Roses of the same year, the "student" Hamlet of 1965 with David Warner. The RSC brought to these productions a steady interest in text and a fierce concern for relevance, created both by pointed interpretations of the old plays and by juxtaposition of old plays in repertory with contemporary, issue-oriented plays - perhaps most famously Brook's production of Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade in 1964 and the anti-Vietnam US of 1966. [21] In the 1960s, the RSC had a clear and unmistakable position - in comparison to the more conservative National Theatre - as "a democratic, no-nonsense institution with a very decidedly left-wing outlook" (Addenbrooke, 65-66).

  8. But by the mid-1990s, a sea change had occurred in London theatre, making it difficult for a company like the RSC to maintain its radical-leftist consciousness. The RSC, in its later life housed like the National in a showcase London venue, opted increasingly for big-name, high-production revivals with less critical edge and higher market appeal. In some senses, then, the activist RSC was by the mid-1990s already something of a period artifact. [22] In this context, the classic theatricality and heritage affiliation of Nunn's film is complicated: does it look back to a "safe" Victorianism, or to the radical modernism of the 1960s? When you looked at the promotions for a costume-drama location film like Much Ado about Nothing, with big-time movie names like Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard and Keanu Reaves, you would have known to expect a good time and significant amounts of eye-candy. But when you saw three years later a similar Shakespeare comedy involving classical theatre names like Trevor Nunn, Ben Kingsley and Nigel Hawthorne, your expectations would be less certain and the result more complex.

  9. Ben Kingsley's presence as an enigmatic and searching Feste particularly complicates the film. He has a strong affiliation to the British theatre, starting with the RSC in 1967 and remaining active on stage through the mid-80s, working at the Royal Court and the National as well as the RSC. He was central to the RSC's program of politicized interpretations of classic texts, playing Demetrius in the ground-breaking Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1970) and Hamlet in Buzz Goodbody's alternative production (1975). He also, of course, brings a powerful filmic presence, associated with the title role in Gandhi (dir. David Attenborough, 1982) and many other roles. [23] With his strong countenance and critical intelligence, Kingsley has a long history of work that forged thoughtful, often intellectual thematic connections among stage, script, film and world. Kingsley dominates Twelfth Night, but paradoxically and unusually, not by asserting himself but by retiring. With Kingsley, we find a Feste who is enigmatic, reserved, often withdrawing from the action; he seems to invite us to withdraw and consider, as well. He is not so much a wise commentator on the action (though he is that) as a "reader" of the action, a character who suggests subtext even as he performs text. He is a catalyst of the production of meaning. He stands, in a sense, for a classic interpretive process, the process of looking at texts as at once baffling and fascinating, complex and transparent, inscrutable and meaningful.

  10. Kingsley's Feste shows such critical and probing intensity that he might well push the film beyond the genre of romantic comedy. But he also shows a corresponding gentleness that supports the comedy's romantic lyricism. He brings a complexity to the film, both supplying a humane center to the often manic and farcical plot, and at the same time suggesting that there are darker critical and social implications to the action than any of us - characters or viewers - might want to engage with. That complexity is, I think, also Nunn's intention in taking on this project: at once to create a romantic film for the mid-1990s, and at the same time to push the text towards the insights that we might have expected at the RSC in the late 1960s (and that we might still need in the 1990s). As a result, the film takes seriously both the text and the contemporary issues that arise from the text: the vulnerability of young women, the masculine obsession with control, the attractions and dangers of transformations and alternativities of sexual identity. [24]

    "What think you of this fool. . . ? Doth he not mend?"

  11. When we first encounter Kingsley in the film, he appears only as a silent observer of Viola as she struggles to life after the shipwreck. Though Shakespeare opens the play in safety, in the court of Orsino (1.1), the film begins in disruption with the shipwreck (not in the text) and then its aftermath on a bleak beach (1.2; Nunn, 5-12). [25] Viola is shown as vulnerable - grieving, exhausted, threatened by soldiers who poke at her baggage in "a brutal cursory way" and by sailors who eye her sexually (Nunn, 8- 9). [26] On the other hand, there are signs of hope. The captain is compassionate and helpful, and Viola herself responds to him warmly. In a number of two-shots of Viola and the captain, the film attunes us to the power of human connection, even as it shows us that we are in "enemy territory" (Nunn, "Introduction," n.p.). It is in that context that we see Kingsley's Feste for the first time, in a disorienting long shot from the beach to the top of the towering cliffs. High up, at a distance, he is a strange figure, unrooted, unexplained, and isolated (even those who know the play well will not expect to see Feste here). As we come closer, we find that he is, as Nunn's screenplay says, "unkempt . . . part vagabond, part itinerant entertainer" (Nunn, 9). [27] We hear from him only two things, a faint chuckle and a snatch of a hummed tune. Is he one of the tramps of Waiting for Godot? Are we in Brecht, or perhaps Fellini? The film seems to want us to go beyond the intimate, reassuring two-shot of romantic comedy: move to the cliffs, it suggests, and we will see things in a sharper, more critical perspective. This observer, Feste, is at once compassionate and unsentimental, watching Viola's sorrow neither with an auspicious nor a drooping eye. He seems neither surprised by the world, nor fully accepting of it. The specific meaning of this enigmatic figure floats, undetermined by dialogue or action.

  12. Given that Feste is introduced as an observer of Viola, we are encouraged to speculate on his connection with her, and his interest in the issues facing her: how does a young woman deal with such loss as she has experienced? As a woman in a frightening world of men, how can she act? Early in the film, Feste suggests an understanding of the marginalized position of women. We will see him more directly interacting with Viola later in the film. For now, his apparent compassion for Viola's situation is evident; the film swiftly extends this compassion to include Maria and Olivia. For each he serves as a sympathetic catalyst for improvement, driven by his vision of something better for the women he cares for. First we watch him with Maria (1.5.27; Nunn, 22). This efficient, busy housekeeper leaves her accounts to fetch him in, feeds him under the eyes of a disapproving kitchen staff, remembers some unnamed personal sorrow "in the war", [28] and joins in his comic routines (she finishes his joke about "two points"). It's a short sequence that demonstrates how Feste's unpredictable acuity is both needed and unexpected in this otherwise highly controlled household. It comes to a head when Feste, admiring Maria's willingness to tell a joke, smiles warmly and drops a bomb: " . . . if Sir Toby would leave drinking, thou wert as pretty a piece of Eve's flesh [as marriageable?] as any in Illyria" (1.5.23-25; Nunn, 23). It's a sharp analysis of the dependence of a housekeeper of a certain age on the unspoken "love" of an unreliable alcoholic aristocrat. It is no joke: it subjects the comic tensions of this household to what we can surmise to be a feminist critique of marriage and gender.

  13. Kingsley's Feste specializes in bringing issues - and folly - out in the open. When Feste first encounters Olivia, he confronts her with the possibility that her obsessive mourning may be wrong: "As there is no true cuckold but calamity, so beauty's a flower" (1.5.44-45; Nunn, 24). The riddle has a pointed meaning: under the pressures of desire and time ("beauty's a flower"), marrying oneself to grief ("calamity") is not a valid possibility (one's grief will inevitably be adulterated, "cuckolded"). Not surprisingly, no one appears to catch this riddle's meaning: all we get is the sense that there is some important issue Feste is prodding Olivia about. [29] But as he pursues his needling, Feste manoeuvres for a position from which he can confront Olivia more directly. A long travelling shot which shows him scampering to catch up with Olivia suddenly becomes a dizzy crane shot swirling around the two of them. He "catechizes" her: "Good madonna, why mourn'st thou?" "Good fool, for my brother's death." "I think his soul is in hell, madonna." "I know his soul is in heaven, fool." "The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul, being in heaven" (1.5.57-62; Nunn, 24). Across differences of gender, age, class, and style, Feste engages her with an intimate and destabilizing critique. He cuts, but not with cruelty: while he exposes the indulgence of her mourning, he also consoles her and begins to wake her to renewed life. Olivia, though stung, realizes his compassion (she checks her annoyance "in spite of herself, seeing FESTE's good intention" [Nunn, 24]). Her relief at seeing his good will then activates her, motivating a question to Malvolio: "What think you of this fool, Malvolio? Doth he not mend?" ["mend": "get better as an entertainer; make us morally better"] [see Plate 1].

    Her invitation for comment is gracious but naïve: she forgets that this puritan will answer in the harshest way: "Yes, and shall do, till the pangs of death shake him" ["do" = "mend": "get better as a fool, become even more foolish"]. Malvolio imposes his cruel ontology - once a fool, ever a fool - and an eschatology to match: in death, and after, folly will lead to punishment. This first speech of Malvolio marks him as Feste's opposite: where Feste is associated with sensitivity and change, Malvolio clings to control and stability. As Malvolio goes deeper into his fantasy of sexual and patriarchal privilege, Feste becomes a more intense critical force interrogating rigidity and repression.

  14. Kingsley's renditions of Feste's songs are not only lyrical but critical as well. As the film website says, Feste is an "observer [who] sees through people . . . what he chooses to sing to people is intentionally relevant and disturbing." As he sings "O Mistress Mine" (2.5), he awakens the agency of all three of the women with whom he has made his empathetic connection. Nunn's biggest transformation of the text takes place here, as he inter-cuts scenes of the singing in the kitchen with shots of Olivia alone in bed, and of Viola with Orsino, so that Feste's one song can weave around the shared dilemma of all three women: time is short, options are limited. [30] "O mistress mine! Where are you roaming? / O, stay and hear your true love's coming" (2.3.36ff; Nunn, 43-47). The song is a classic RSC moment of suspended action - lighting subdued, stage quiet, listeners scattered about in significant groupings. Kingsley sings simply; in this resonant space, he can quietly engage his listeners with the "sweet ambivalence" of this song of melancholy desire. [31] Each listener takes it in. The men are silently aware of the impact of the song - we see Andrew's dimwitted regret and Toby's drunken awareness of love passing him by. But Maria, isolated from the men, is more acutely conscious of the song's application to her. She sings with Feste: "In delay there lies no plenty - / Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty." [see Plate 2]

    Their harmony resonates across their differences: her enforced subordination as a female dependent and his angry repeated assertion of the bitterness of the world. "Youth's a stuff [as he angrily shakes his head] will not endure." Is there hope? The song lyrics promise that "Journeys end in lover's meeting," but this hopeful line is not actually sung in the film. As Viola asks, "How will this fadge?" As a woman and a dependent, Maria cannot directly initiate change; Toby has no incentive to do so. But the song helps Maria take advantage of the ways in which she can act - first in joining Feste in music, then in hatching the plot against Malvolio. The song arouses even the lethargic Toby, reminding him of love and silently exposing what blocks it - his class-based pride, his manly English bluffness, and his dependence on Maria and his anger at being dependent on her. The song enacts a lyric conspiracy between Maria and Feste, a polyvocal performance of the difficult path to romantic union. [32]

  15. Nunn inter-cuts to take Feste's tune to another part of the house, into Olivia's pre-Raphaelite bedchamber (Nunn, 43). For the half-sleeping Olivia, the song is apparently an erotic and disturbing sign of her desire for Viola, heard distantly, as in a dream. Like the music that faintly enters Madeline's bedroom in a similar scene in Keats' poem "The Eve of St. Agnes," the bedroom scene engages the Romantic fascination with moments of suspended desire. As in most Romantic lyrics, the deferral of satisfaction is both disturbing and utterly necessary. Feste moves passion towards fulfillment ("then come kiss me, sweet and twenty") and at the same time warns of the uncertainty of fulfillment ("What's to come is still unsure)." [33] The art of the singer - or the lyric poet - is to create an image of truth that is as precious and disturbing as a dream, that we remember even "on the cold hill's side." [34]

  16. None of the lovers featured in this midnight scene know what "lovers' meetings" lie ahead, least of all Viola. Feste's power to figure the precious instability of the moment seems to bring his song even to her, though she's not in the same house and not (textually) part of the scene. Nunn cuts across the text to include a textually later scene between Viola and Orsino (2.4: "That old and antique song we heard last night…") as if it were happening at the same time as the revels in the kitchen. As the song is heard in Orsino's smoking room, we have masculine images of cigar smoke and stiff wool instead of the soft white-linen femininity of Olivia's bedchamber (2.4.1-40; Nunn, 42-46). Orsino, self-absorbed and more than a little cruel, imposes his view of love on Viola. Man's desire, he asserts, is by its nature "giddy and unfirm" (she sadly acknowledges, "I think they are, my lord"). Women, he says, are in their very selves utterly transient: "women are as roses, whose fair flow'r, / Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour" (2.4.32-38; Nunn, 46). Behind this dialog, we hear a "song without words," a piano version of Feste's song. The piano, that quintessential nineteenth-century century instrument of passion, self-reflection, sorrow and aggrandizement, fittingly becomes the background to Orsino's dark meditation about how, because of women, "what's to come is still unsure."

  17. What's to come for all these characters - marriages, consummations, and resolutions - is far from sure. Like a classic Romantic lyric or a Chekhov play, this sequence is full of tensions, deferrals, richness, and pleasure. [35] In this film, it is Feste who gives us that pleasure, the same Feste who searchingly analyzes folly. We might say that Kingsley's Feste is a poet-figure; it would be even more apt to call him an entertainer, the kind of dedicated, thoughtful, lyrical and compassionate entertainer that could bring us back again and again to Shakespeare's plays - a man of the classic theatre, in short. In that sense, he stands for the way I like to see this film working: taking a view both of the familiar - the well-known, virtually unchanging, often-repeated text of Twelfth Night - and imbuing it with new, unstable, unsettling resonance. Even in the utterly familiar - "That old and antique song we heard last night" - we may not be quite sure of "what's to come," and that uncertainty may, oddly, give us pleasure. [36]

    "Pleasure will be paid"

  18. As the play progresses, the pleasure gets complicated. The plot against Malvolio intensifies, Olivia's desire becomes more frank and more public, Orsino gets more deeply embroiled in his desires, and Viola grows increasingly vulnerable to the crosscurrents of power and desire around her. In the film, Feste is our primary means of understanding this journey into complexity: he looks squarely at what's going wrong and at the same time enjoys the process by which things get made right. From his perspective, we see danger, sorrow, and madness as part of the pleasure of a classic text being brought into the contemporary world. He reminds us that theatre uses a cycle of repetition and performance in order to find in the old, fixed, classic text that which resonates with the new. But nothing comes cheap: with the pleasure of the art comes the cost of being unsettled by it.

  19. For example, the film turns a verbal and witty scene between Feste and Viola into a warning about the dangers that Viola faces in her sexual and social instability. The scene is their encounter as Viola comes to woo Olivia a second time ("Save thee, friend, and thy music": 3.1.1-61; Nunn, 64-65). There's an intensifying rhythm to the scene, based on a classic RSC commitment to the potential of an apparently trivial text. Viola dismounts from her horse and rubs her cramping thighs; she knows that her disguise is uncomfortable, but she doesn't yet understand how dangerous it is - how it has aroused desire in Olivia and thrust Viola into an untenable position with Orsino. She meets Feste playing his concertina, and greets him. [37] Feste silently thrusts his hand out for a tip. It's a request, but also a challenge, as if he wants something more than money from her. As the two trade word play, Viola rises to the occasion, chopping logic like a man, even playing a sight-gag she shares with her brother, a magic trick with a coin. [38] With a faint smile, Feste challenges her in a deeper way: "Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard!" She answers him in a riddling speech: "By my troth, I'll tell thee, I am almost sick for one, though I would not have it grow on my chin." She starts toward the house. But Feste intervenes, "I would play Lord Pandarus of Phrygia, sir, to bring a Cressida to this Troilus." She responds with breezy self-control, mastering the allusion ("I understand you, sir"), giving another coin, and again walking toward the house. Here's where the real challenge comes - a surprise, but also a logical extension of the gathering tension. Feste turns on Viola, suddenly advancing into her one-shot from the edge of the film frame, as he intensely reminds her, "Cressida was a beggar." [see Plate 3]

    In the story to which he alludes, Cressida, a young Greek woman at loose ends in Troy; ended up "a beggar" - and, he doesn't need to say, a whore and leper as well. Feste knows that such vulnerable and isolated young women as Cressida and Viola are in danger; the beautiful myths of romantic love can end up badly. Is this interchange a warning to Viola? Yes. And yet it's also just a part of a pleasurable little scene between two performers intent on topping one another with their jokes and gags. Nor is "Cressida" a "real woman," but an artifact of other performances, the heroine of other "songs" - Chaucer's, Henryson's, soon Shakespeare's. Feste's sober warning of the dangers that might lie ahead for Viola is also a reminder of the pleasure we take in performing the stories that embody those dangers.

  20. Feste's wit and music resonate with his critical, knowing perspectives. Not long after the "Cressida" exchange, Viola meets him again on a dark and stormy night. She and Orsino have been heated up by wine, cigars, erotic conversation and music (2.4.14-19; Nunn, 74). Viola is uneasy in her desire for this restless man who thinks, wrongly, that he's being constant to another woman. In fact, as the film makes clear, he's recklessly "unstaid and skittish in all motions." He longs for Feste's music, which he hears in the distance, and "hurtles wildly down the path." Feste is hanging out in a barn, which Nunn calls his "squat," and is "a bit the worse for drink" (Nunn, 74). This entertainer apparently lives on the margins - rootless, solitary, and maybe a bit crazy; coming to see him constitutes a risky moment for the duke, charged with eroticism - and lyric pleasure. As Feste sings "Come away, come away, death," Orsino and Viola abandon themselves to the pleasures of the moment. Orsino moves to stand by Viola; then, taking her hand, he whispers in her ear. The song, he asserts, is a harmless pastoral - "It is silly sooth, / And dallies with the innocence of love / Like the old age" (2.4.45-47; Nunn, 75). But he's wrong. In Feste's hands, this sophisticated madrigal enacts a love-death that probes the dangers of love. It explores an annihilation beyond death, for the song's "slain" lover not only pronounces his own death ("I am slain by a fair cruel maid") but also the eradication of any memorial: "not a friend greet / My poor corpse. . . . Lay me O where / Sad true lover never find my grave, / To weep there." (2.4.50-65; Nunn, 75-77). Feste's rendition, engaged and intense, resonates with Viola's history of loss and with her own self-annihilation in disguise and (apparently) unfulfillable desire.

  21. Orsino almost makes a move on her, as the romantic ballad - Kingsley's guitar and voice now supported by orchestral soundtrack - works its power. Orsino seems half asleep, hardly conscious of his own desire; it is Viola who is fully aware of the erotic moment. We watch from Feste's point of view, as "CESARIO is yearningly aroused - and begins slowly, slowly to turn her head towards ORSINO'S mouth" (Nunn, 77). [see Plate 4]

    But the kiss is never consummated, because the song comes to an abrupt end. If the song were truly "silly sooth," as Orsino calls it (that is, mere entertainment music), the romantic moment might be held indefinitely. [39] But it's not just background music, it is a lyric of tragic desire, and as such has to have an end. In the tense silence as the song ends, Feste looks hard at the lovers with what Nunn calls "his X-ray eyes" ("Introduction," n.p.). Under that gaze, Orsino pulls rank, patronizingly tossing a coin to Feste: "There's for thy pains" ["pains" = labour]. Feste, however, turns Orsino's conventional use of "pains" back on him: "No pains, sir. I take pleasure in singing." In foregrounding the pun, he links the pain of the song's tragic content and the pleasure of his labour. Orsino, still trying to regain detachment, joins him in the "pleasurable" realm of art, as a patron: "I'll pay thy pleasure, then." "Truly, sir," says Feste dryly, "and pleasure will be paid" (2.4.66-70; Nunn, 77).

  22. "Pleasure will be paid" is a conventional moral tag. But in this tense context it conveys something more, implying a diagnosis of the moral complications of erotic and artistic pleasure. Under Feste's gaze, Orsino surely sees his friendship for "Cesario" as it must look to the public. The duke seems not to have realized until now that his military-academy court with its concentrated masculinity and communal athleticism, fed by his constant talk of love and sudden favouring of a beautiful youth, is likely to cross the lines of heteronormative sexuality. [40]Now he sees himself about to kiss this boy. Understandably, he rushes out of the barn into the open air, appalled at how close he is to breaking the codes of sexuality. Orsino, after all, has not been at the countless RSC productions that have explored "alternative" sexualities in order to break down the single-minded codes of compulsory heterosexuality. He has not been able to absorb the post-1960s momentum of interpretive criticism on the romantic comedies exploring gender and sexuality. He is aware that something is strange, but he has no clue about what it is. [41] Viola presumably understands Feste's penetrating gaze and haunting song more accurately. In being about to kiss Orsino, she may have forgotten that he thinks she's a boy. But she certainly knows her own desires: she's a woman in love with a man. For him, the kiss would be an unwelcome and scary distraction from his obsessive courtship; for her, it would be a step towards a "natural" consummation of her love. The knowing perspective from which we see all this confusion is Feste's: as Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Kingsley's laughing brown eyes seem to be stealing glimpses a century ahead into the age of sexual reassignment and hormone therapy." [42]

  23. Breaking off the kiss makes Viola sharply aware of the discrepancy between her desires and the likelihood of fulfilling them. In the cliff-side scene that follows (2.4.77-120; Nunn, 78-79) Orsino sends Viola to woo Olivia ("Once more, Cesario, / Get thee to yond same sovereign cruelty"). This time Viola can't bear Orsino's obliviousness - to her, to Olivia, to women in general. "But if she cannot love you, sir?" When he cries, "I cannot so be answered," she shouts, "Sooth, but you must." In response to Viola's assertion of "some lady" who loves him as deeply as he loves Olivia, Orsino frankly expresses his distrust of women: "no woman's sides / Can bear the beating of so strong a passion / As love doth give my heart." Herself now more than ever conscious of her desire for him, she realizes that she must teach him about the emotions of women. "Ay, but I know. . . " she cries angrily. She has started to use the language of personal - woman's - experience, but she backs off to maintain her disguise. In her intense story ("My father had a daughter loved a man. . . "), she shows Orsino that a woman can evidence passion, generosity, dignity and submission. Women "are as true of heart as we."

  24. The turmoil of the scene - tragically heightened by shots of cliffs and surf - plays out Orsino's obsessive desire for Olivia and his confused homoerotic attraction to Viola. [43] But even as the film evokes the powerful issues of gender identity and repressed sexuality, it pulls away from the tragedy that might lie there: we are not going to enter the world of secrets, lies, or violence. Viola backs down and promises him, "I'll do my best to woo your lady." Given the way romantic comedy works, she has to remain "Cesario" for the play to resolve its tangle. That resolution, clearly, will be in marriage: her hopes that "myself would be his wife" are also the play's. Desire, far from being secret, will find a way to reveal itself and cut through complication. Even in the darkest moments, the play and the film see their endings clearly, though not how we will get there. The "sense of an ending" is largely represented by Kingsley's Feste. His unflustered observation and resolute interrogation of the dangerous sides of the action at once acknowledge and defuse the sense of tragedy. As the character Feste, he seems to know things that will help to lead the comedy to its resolution - the vulnerability of women, the scariness of homosexual encounter in a patriarchal society, the dangers of repression and the limits of freedom. As the actor Kingsley, too, he seems to represent the way in which classic RSC theatre repeatedly delves into the darker sides of the text, even as it promises that the classic endings will prevail, that the entertainment will please us in the end.

    "I am the man!"

  25. The film explores issues of feminism, gender and sexuality resolutely yet cautiously, knowingly engaging the story with contemporary analyses while holding the action in a semi-closeted "heritage" fin-de-siècle. [44] The shipboard prologue, for example, which displays Sebastian "in drag" (performing "O Mistress Mine" with Viola in harem costumes), domesticates transvestitism even as it mocks the complacency of colonial travelers as they enjoy this transvestite show. The extended shot of Viola in the sea that follows echoes Jane Campion's film The Piano and hints at that film's feminist analysis of colonial manifestations of woman's vulnerability; and yet the allusion occurs so briefly that it hardly suggests that this romantic comedy film will delve so graphically as Campion's into that disturbing area. Nunn's film engages (but largely comically) the intense sexual politics of the later twentieth century; as Anthony Lane points out, the play, like other great comedies, depends on "a taste for subterfuge" (2001: 76).

  26. Nunn's Twelfth Night plays into 1990s same-sex liberationism, and at the same time sets pretty clear limits on how liberated it's going to be. The lesbian potential of the Olivia-Viola relationship is manifested early in the film, when "Cesario" intrudes on Olivia's mourning and Olivia begins to fixate on this "boy" (1.5.149-258; Nunn, 29-34). Olivia's attraction is clearly lesbian: Viola is (to our view) obviously a woman, the masculinity a transparent disguise. Olivia may believe that she's flirting with a man, but for us, all signs - including Viola's false mustache - keep reminding us that Viola is a woman. The lush Victorian interior, the rituals of candle-lighting and veils, the sensuous cinematography - all suggest an eroticized space of soft-porn lesbian romance. [45] At the peak of the move into lesbian romance is a brief two-shot of Viola and Olivia near the French doors leading to the garden, lovingly enveloped by rich darkness, and romantically back-lit by the mellow light coming in between the velvet curtains. [see Plate 5]

    As Viola tells Olivia how Orsino loves her "with sighs of fire," the women's mouths pass close to each other, lips open - in our perspective, about to kiss. But the kiss is denied (like the kiss in the scene between "Cesario" and Orsino). The two move past each other, from the eroticized drawing room to the chilly openness of the lawn, where the roles change drastically. There Viola makes a passionate enactment of male courtship ("Make me a willow cabin at your gate. . . ."). This speech is highly masculine: brash, funny, public and loud, and builds to a climax in its indiscreet shout "Olivia!" - a far cry from the secrecy of the muted parlour scene. [46] The line is clearly drawn between the parlour and the garden, between the private stirrings of alternative desire and the public reassertion of social expectations. Viola will later sum it up with a safely heterosexual conclusion, amused rather than distressed to find that "I am the man!" (2.2.23; Nunn, 37). [47]

  27. In line with many contemporary interpretations of Twelfth Night, the film's Antonio displays an obvious longing for Sebastian ("if you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant"). [48] This potentially gay relationship, however, is doomed from the start by cluelessness on Sebastian's part, who senses something odd in Antonio but seems never to have considered the possibility of a man desiring another man. So Antonio, closeted by necessity, has to live a cycle of intimations and unspoken rejections, a hard fate made memorably visual by the sad-sack countenance that Nicholas Farrell brings to the part. One might imagine staging Antonio in a more liberal tonality - matching him, perhaps, with a Sebastian who understands homosexual desire even as he declines it. [49] But the Feste who oversees the critical conscience of the film would hardly have approved such a sentimental ending: the tones of this film are in general comic but not do not so easily sweep the issues under the rug.

  28. And yet, one might expect that in some way, in the 1990s, Nunn would have gone further with same-sex issues. Certainly criticism of the play has emphatically explored these issues. [50] And filmmakers like Derek Jarman have shown that we can push the classic texts to resist and subvert the dominant histories of interpretation. Nunn, however, is not about to break apart the text or go against the grain of a received understanding of the meanings of romantic comedy. For him, the text still leads through disruption, not into it. As Richard Burt has recently articulated, same-sex desire and homoerotic possibility lead in Nunn's film not towards a queer aesthetic but towards the liberation, and liberalization, of heterosexual potentialities (1998, 176-180). [51]

  29. Given the importance of cross-dressing in contemporary theatre and film, a play like Twelfth Night - featuring a woman dressed as a man - might be expected to engage the transgressive potential of that theme. [52]Both the video box and the video distributor's U.S. website evoke the carnivalesque humour of camp cross-dressing films, commending the film as "Wittier than The Birdcage and more fun than To Wong Foo." [53] Another marketing tag (on the IMDB website) reads, "Before Priscilla crossed the desert, Wong Foo met Julie Newmar, and the Birdcage was unlocked, there was . . . ." In this knowingly unfinished chronology, Twelfth Night is slyly catalogued as an originary text of transvestite camp, transgressive and liberatory, an active conspirator in the crossing of deserts and the unlocking of birdcages. But the marketing also limits the transgressive implications. Prominent on the video box is another tag: "Never send a boy to do a man's job, especially if he's a girl" [italics original]. Despite the titillating sense of sexual intrigue, there is a prescriptive tone to the tag ("never send"), which casts a shadow of normative moralizing. The punchline ("especially if he's a girl") strikes an essentializing note that counters any serious gender-bending possibilities. "Cesario" may look like a boy, but in fact "he's a girl." The issues, then, are marketed as problems of disguise - which preserves an essential identity - rather than the more transgressive ones of cross-dressing - which threatens identity. [54]

  30. The film treats cross-dressing as a theatrical situation, a pleasurable complication on the path to resolution, rather than a commitment to contemporary theories of identity shifts and gender performance. [55] The audience is constantly reminded of the mechanics of Viola's disguise, and thus of her essential and (as Osborne calls it) "transparent femininity" (1996: 99). During the opening credits, we witness Viola's makeover under the paternal guidance of the sea captain. Later, we watch Viola retire to her bedroom and unbind her breasts, exhausted by the men's-club demands of Orsino's court. [56] When a fencing master touches her breast in correcting her stance, she responds with surprise, as if she's genuinely amazed that a man would touch her on the breast. She is an unguarded innocent, hardly a transgressive cross-dresser - though certainly a sexual being, aroused by her contacts with Olivia and Orsino. [57] Though quotations on the video marketing may suggest that the film belongs in camp or even queer genres, and though same-sex eroticism is clearly strongly referenced in the near-kiss shots, a different suggestion appears in the art-work used on the poster and the video box. [see Plate 6]

    In this collage of three headshots, Viola and Olivia are hardly close to an erotic encounter. Viola's eyes are fixed not on Olivia but beyond her to Orsino, in obvious adoration. Olivia, too, is looking away from Viola into the near distance, as if she were seeing the invisible Sebastian who's going to make everything work out fine. [58] The marketing has picked up on the careful touch with which Nunn treats the sexual implications of the play: Viola's cross-dressing is more comic than transgressive, because her destiny - as a woman - is so clearly signalled from the beginning.

    "My tale is done"

  31. This film with its strong sense of classic form makes us constantly aware of the pressure of its ending, the intricate resolution necessary for a Shakespearean romantic comedy. This teleological impulse is closely tied to Feste, whose bemused detachment suggests that he, from the beginning, can see the "big picture." The film, however, does not rush to a simple resolution. Like Feste, who is both seer and entertainer, the film makes clear where things are going and yet suspends arrival as long as it can. As a good comedy, it complicates resolution for our further pleasure. Among the several complications is the situation of Maria. Her fate is shown to depend on Toby, who seems reluctant to propose to her. The complications come as Toby pursues his revenge against Malvolio: he goes deeper than he intended into the excitement of what Nunn calls this "blood sport" (88). By the time he gets Malvolio into the madhouse (4.2; Nunn, 106-109), Toby is drunk and Maria "distressed and pained." Shaken, he acknowledges that "I am now so far in offence with my niece that I cannot pursue't with any safety." Awkwardly, then, he finally awakens to his need for Maria, making a harsh and awkward sexual demand: "Sir Toby goes a few paces and turns. Maria goes to support him. Sir Toby grabs her and kisses her fiercely on the mouth and the throat, aroused by the whole incident" (Nunn, 109). He "proposes" not marriage but sex: "Come by and by to my chamber." As he leaves without waiting for an answer, the camera looks to Maria for her response to this complex of issues. She looks at Feste, who nods slowly; then she leaves to join Toby. [59] Feste's sombre observation authorizes this resolution without pretending that it constitutes a simple or happy ending. Apparently, no happy wedding transpires; Feste watches through the church window as a small and indistinct couple "move nervously towards the altar rail" (Nunn, 113). Toby's discomfort with his capitulation to Maria presumably motivates his final scene with Andrew, as his anger flares suddenly and viciously, and he publicly labels Andrew "a thin-faced knave, a gull!" (5.1.199; Nunn, 121). Feste looks on with another of his now-familiar response shots: a look full of sorrow, a knowing counterpart to the happy sentiments circulating about in the scene of general reunion and resolution. Given the complicated passages of their love, it's no wonder Toby and Maria have to leave Illyria at the end.

  32. Even in the recognition scene (5.1), when the move to resolution is strongest, Nunn holds it in suspension. The revelations move on with inevitable sureness and yet without haste. Viola takes an age to recognize Sebastian; their walking towards each other and their interrogation of their mutual parentage are slow, almost dreamlike. She holds the resolution in abeyance: "Do not embrace me," she tells her brother, until all the signs are clear. If she seems to want to hold to her disguise, it may be because what lies beyond it is scary. It would be scary if this were real life. But in more than one sense, it's not real, it's art. After all, Sebastian and Viola have performed this scene before: when he peels off her moustache in this recognition scene, it's a reprise of their shipboard vaudeville act. Feste looks on this performance with a complex gesture. His hand moves slowly past his mouth - as if to trace where Viola's moustache had been? - and then down, to touch briefly, gently, on his chest - as if to carry the implications of the disguise and its removal into his heart. A few moments later, another of his wonderful gestures suspends and seals the action: as Orsino and Viola finally kiss, we watch him - first looking aside at them, then front and center at us, quizzically rubbing the side of his nose.

  33. The final actions of the recognition scene are Feste's. From his coat pocket, he brings out Viola's necklace, discarded on the beach; silently he puts it on her. The ritualized act deepens and complicates her re-transformation into woman. Taken off in sorrow and vulnerability, the necklace returns to her as a mark of strength. In disguise, she has assumed the mobility and the freedom of masculinity; now the necklace seems to signify her essential womanhood. At the same time, however, its presence on her neck must remind us of its long absence through the play, and the history of her shift from that identity, her life as "Cesario." The closure of Viola's time as boy is thus solemnized in a way that heightens the unresolved liminality of her status throughout the play. [60]

  34. Feste's other action is silently to deliver Malvolio's letter to Olivia, the letter which will "resolve" Malvolio's madness. The letter ensures that Malvolio's purgatory is still to come, that he will be publicly, theatrically humiliated in the next scene. In the hall of Olivia's house, Feste draws out the scene, slowly descending the staircase, proudly showing that he is mockingly wearing Malvolio's toupee. He is hardly a peacemaker but a showman, coming to twist the knife once more for our pleasure. Silent, enigmatic, even compassionate through much of the film, here he shows directly why he hates Malvolio. "But do you remember: 'Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal? . . . And you smile not, he's gagged?'" (5.1.362-364; Nunn, 129). Malvolio is the enemy of the entertainer; he abhors the classic theatre with its laughter and ambiguity. He is the puritan who is to shut down the stages of London, who - like other puritans in the 1990s, perhaps - feels that he has the only acceptable handle on social control. But for an interrogator like Feste, it's not Malvolio's regimes of surveillance and repression that will keep us in balance. The struggle between wildness and control is a fierce one, performed anew every day. "And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges," he says. Time does not lead us straight to some blessed commonwealth of the virtuous (safe from distractions of "cakes and ale"), but is a fierce and vengeful "whirligig" - part whirlwind (just as Feste is part prophet), part child's spinning top, fast and unpredictable.

  35. The epilogue, sung by Feste, seems at first to neatly summarize the play's resolutions in a stanza-by-stanza picture of man's life from youth to age (5.1.376-395; Nunn, 130-133). The first four stanzas are illustrated, respectively, with four vignettes that reflect the song's evocation of the stages of life: first Andrew leaves in his comic pony-trap ("A foolish thing was but a toy"); then Antonio, "'Gainst [whom] men shut their gates," glumly walks out of the gates; [61] then Toby and Maria climb into a carriage in a gloomy wood reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm and Arthur Rackham ("By swaggering did I never thrive"); and last of the four, Malvolio walks out with his suitcase, headed to a lonely exile ("when I came unto my beds"). [62] The parallels of song and action are neat, but the song itself, with its enigmatic syntax and refrain ("the rain it raineth every day") opens up more questions than resolutions. By its expulsion of the foolish, the perverse, the neurotic and the joyless, the film signals the mixed conditions and the costs of the happy ending. "Normalcy" is established, but not easily, and probably not forever. The whirligig may well keep turning in its wild fashion; Malvolio promises, after all, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" (5.1.365; Nunn, 130).

  36. For a moment, a formal closure - a "happy ending" - is apparently reified as the two principal couples and their faithful retainers enjoy a happy country dance, putting aside the differences of class and the struggles of sexuality and sexual identity. [63] [see Plate 7]

    Though the Shakespeare text ends with Viola still dressed as a boy (5.1.372-75), Nunn re-costumes her in "maid's garments" - hair curled, cleavage amply framed in a rich pastel gown. Her sexual identity now fixed, she dances with Olivia, Sebastian and Orsino in a fantasy of mutuality. [64] The ending celebrates a utopian society that will maintain even in marriage the bond of brother and sister, the Platonic love of woman and woman, and perhaps even the friendship of boy with man - bonds that are often disrupted by heterosexual resolutions in Shakespearean comedy. This upbeat dance is the background to the credits, and it feels like the end of the film. [65]

  37. But it's not: there is one more stanza of the epilogue, and one more oddball to account for - Feste himself. We see him after the dance and the credits, on a cliff above the sea as at the beginning, but this time from above. He sings the final verse of the epilogue, the one that doesn't fit the pattern:

    A great while ago the world was begun,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
    But that's all one, our play is done,
    And we'll strive to please you every day.

    It's obviously the end of the film; but even now the end is deferred by repetition. The end of the last verse isn't actually the end, but is repeated three times as Feste comes ever closer to the camera, varying his inflections: "every day . . . [closer] . . . every day . . . [laughing out loud] . . . every day!" [see Plate 8]

    He spins around in a solitary jig, "twirling like a top down the seacoast ridge" (Brown, 15) and rounds a corner, dropping out of sight. What's this odd, charming and almost secret post-epilogue doing here?

  38. The final "every day" is not sung, but spoken, and the return from lyric to dramatic speech signals the return of the theatrical. [66] Feste is, like Kingsley himself, a classic man of the theatre, well-seasoned in performance. He knows what it's like to do the show night after night, to stage Twelfth Night again and again, and to come back to the classic texts. He's seen it all - the passions of Illyrians, the conventions of romantic comedy, and the illusions of theatre - and of filmmaking. He knows that it has happened a hundred times and may well happen hundreds more. But he knows also that there's more work that a Shakespearean text like Twelfth Night can do in the world. He seems happy to be part of the whirligig that brings the old text back into our view, to mend us, comfort us, or set us on a new path. He gives us a dance more disturbing than the sentimental line dance of the party in the hall. This artist dances alone on the cold hillside, an elfin and independent voice singing the lyrics of possibility and desire, "celebrating the paradoxes of constancy and change" (Brown, 27). "Every day!" is a loaded and edgy phrase: it's the curse and the blessing of the classic, that it happens again and again, every day, new and yet familiar. [67]


Stills are taken from the video of Twelfth Night with the kind permission of Entertainment Film Distributors (U.K.).

1. Reviewer John Hartl called Twelfth Night "downright classical. . . [s]ome would even say musty" (n.p.). Shakespeare films that may be seen to overshadow Twelfth Night include Prospero's Books (dir. Peter Greenaway, 1991), Much Ado about Nothing (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1993), Richard III (dir. Richard Loncraine, 1995), Othello (dir. Oliver Parker, 1995), Looking for Richard (dir. Al Pacino, 1996), Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1996), Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden, 1998). James N. Loehlin (67) contrasts the "mainstream conventions" of Shakespeare films like Nunn's with the "striking and imaginative" styles of Loncraine's Richard III. [Return to essay]

2. The U.S. release date of the Luhrmann film (1 Nov 1996) was just a week after Nunn's (25 Oct 1996), overshadowing it critically and at the box office (dates from IMDB). Nunn's comment in an interview with Gary Crowdus acknowledges the differences between the two films: of the Luhrmann film, he says,

It didn't score particularly high marks with me for the amount of text that managed to survive or, in many cases, the decisions that were taken about what that text actually meant, how it was learned or how it was phrased. All of that pales into insignificance when you consider that the director achieved a completely personal vision that contained urgency and immediacy and anger and relevance, all of which did address itself to a youthful audience that responded. So I think there's great value in it as a film, but I don't think of it as being the total solution. (Crowdus, 39)

Kenneth S. Rothwell (240) commends Nunn's work as "gracefully and wittily" meeting the challenge of filming Shakespeare's bittersweet play, but his treatment is largely descriptive. That the film has a classic visual appeal is indicated by Rothwell using a still from it for the dustjacket of his book. Peter Holland commends Nunn's film as "[u]nobtrusively effective (unlike the exhilarating ostentation of Luhrmann's film or the dulling ostentation of Branagh's Hamlet)" (n.p.). [Return to essay]

3. I agree with Osborne that "In Nunn's Twelfth Night, our 'natural perspective' on the twins, like that in Shakespeare's play, proves at once fragmented and continuous -- and therefore ideological rather than 'natural'" (2001: 106), and am interested in exploring how Feste's particular presence contributes to that effect. [Return to essay]

4. Cinematographer Clive Tickner used a tobacco filter "to 'age' [the set], while keeping the autumn skies luminous" (Twelfth Night. Website). [Return to essay]

5. If the mise en scène of Twelfth Night links it with literary heritage films, so does its casting: Helena Bonham Carter (Olivia) established her fame in the witty adaptation of Forster's A Room With A View (dir. James Ivory, 1986), Nigel Hawthorne (Malvolio) starred in highly literate Madness of King George (dir. Nicholas Hytner, 1994), Imogen Stubbs (Viola) and Imelda Staunton (Maria) appeared in Sense and Sensibility (dir. Ang Lee, 1995), Toby Stephens (Orsino) in the off-beat period film Orlando (dir. Sally Potter, 1992). In what may be an arch reference to the heritage associations of the cast, Nunn gives Sebastian a copy of "Baedeker's Illyria," which he uses for his sightseeing until he is seduced by Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter): in A Room with a View Bonham Carter's character throws away in her Baedeker in favour of other pursuits. [Return to essay]

6. Timothy Corrigan describes the heritage film's "post-postmodern yearning for good plots and characters with depth. . . a nostalgia for past worlds of coherency, romance, adventure, and some degree of psychological and social order" (72). The producers of Twelfth Night, David Parfitt and Stephen Evans, are associated with the heritage genre, having worked together on The Madness of King George, and later on The Wings of the Dove (dir. Iain Softley, 1997). [Return to essay]

7. Nunn's Twelfth Night shares its country house location with the BBC Time/Life video of the play (dir. John Gorrie, 1980) which, as Laurie E. Osborne notes, established an "intimacy with the country house [that] ties Twelfth Night to other popular BBC productions like Upstairs, Downstairs and places the play firmly within the BBC's larger commitment to English culture and manners" (1996: 119). [Return to essay]

8. Ricky Eyres, the art director, had worked previously on the powerfully militarized Edward II (dir. Derek Jarman, 1991), and was to go on to shoot Saving Private Ryan (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1998), where the wars of the past are evoked rather more disturbingly. [Return to essay]

9. Claire Monk, in a thoughtful review essay of the film Carrington (dir. Christopher Hampton, 1995), outlines some of the ways heritage films can move beyond "their promotion of a conservative, bourgeois, pastoral, 'English' national identity" (33). For a discussion of complex modes of fidelity and homage, see Mary Favret, "Being True to Jane Austen." The Portrait of a Lady (dir. Jane Campion, 1996), released in the same year as Twelfth Night, is a period drama with a heritage affiliation, yet has a strong anti-heritage ideology, a rejection of the politeness often characterizing films in this genre (see Lizzie Frank, "On the Brink"). [Return to essay]

10. The Victorian setting causes some trouble that the film never resolves, such as the oddly ramshackle "mad room" for Malvolio which negates the earnest therapies of the nineteenth century. Nor does the idea of Illyria as an isolated city-state at war with some apparently nearby and probably dynastically related enemy fit with British communication and governmental efficiency in the height of the Empire. [Return to essay]

11. By "text" I mean not just the script of the play but also the "inherently multiple" nature of the accumulation of histories of critical and performance interpretation (Osborne 1996: 15). [Return to essay]

12. One might add Looking for Richard with its fractured documentary approach, and Titus (dir. Julie Taymor, 1999) with its baroque visual priorities. The title of Nunn's film is deliberately low-key, using only the title of the play and not the authorial "Shakespeare." In the actual title shot, Nunn even goes so far as to include the play's enigmatic subtitle (Or, What you Will), more than a little baffling to non-Shakespeareans. Nunn acknowledges that some film industry consultants resisted his use of Shakespeare's title (Nunn, "Introduction," n.p.). [Return to essay]

13. Nunn acknowledges the struggles between film and text: creating his opening scene with its added voiceover (written by Nunn), he says, "I wept, I resisted, I tampered" ("Introduction," n.p.). Nunn's iambic pentameter prologue, with its hints at rhyme and its antique diction ("Dauntless, her brother plunges in the main") is in keeping with the 19th-century history of the text. Osborne (1996: 23) quotes an 1882 condensation of the play by one Samuel Ferguson, with a sound similar to Nunn's:

Conceive a shipwreck; and imagine two
Of the passengers, with fractions of the crew
At several ventures on the Illyrian coast
Escaped, each deeming that the other's lost.
Twins are they, Greeks, a sister and a brother
So like you'd scarce know either from the other.

[Return to essay]

14. I would not agree with Anthony Lane, however, that filmmakers need to "trust" Shakespeare, rather than to mess with him. Lane writes: "I don't mind if the film [William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, in this case] recruits Shakespeare to the banner of hip, but I resent the covert implication that Shakespeare still, to an extent, gets in the way of the hoopla, and that the language is more hindrance than help" (1996: 66). An anthology of essays assembled just before Twelfth Night was released (Boose and Burt, Shakespeare: The Movie) comments that "just where the film industry will take Shakespeare seems quite up for grabs." The editors go on to speculate on two very different possibilities: the "teen-target, popular film [which] has rocketed into the huge-budget model" or "artsy-artsy cultural elitism that was bound not to make money" ("Introduction," 2-3). It is particularly difficult to find strongly interpretive films of the comedies, though The Tempest has had Greenaway and Jarman to lead the way (see Michael Hattaway, "The Comedies on Film"). Russell Jackson earlier noted the need for good film versions of the comedies, rather than films that seem made, as he says, "to make sure that some sort of homage has been paid to 'Shakespeare'" (100). Peter Holland, too, suggests that "In its consistent intelligence Twelfth Night seems to me to be the model future filmmakers looking towards Shakespearean comedy would be best advised to follow" (n.p.). A recent (March 2002) seminar at the Shakespeare Association of America, led by Sam Crowl, suggests that some excellent critical work on the comedies is being done. [Return to essay]

15. For background on these companies, in particular the RSC, see Sally Beauman, The Royal Shakespeare Company; Steven Adler, Rough Magic: Making Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company; and David Addenbrooke, The Royal Shakespeare Company: The Peter Hall Years. [Return to essay]

16. Among the 10 principals, all have extensive British theatre resumes; among them, only Richard E. Grant (Sir Andrew), Mel Smith (Sir Toby) and Stephen Mackintosh (Sebastian) show no RSC or National Theatre roles, according to the film's website. [Return to essay]

17. The announcement of the film for the Telluride film festival, as quoted by Burt (1998, 190). Nunn's strategy is not as resolutely RSC-oriented as that pursued by Adrian Noble in his Midsummer Night's Dream of the same year. He cast the film entirely with RSC actors, and, according to Kenneth Rothwell, "[t]he impeccable RSC diction carries more polish than feeling" (246). [Return to essay]

18. Nunn writes that he was encouraged to cast "participants who would provide huge box-office value, despite, in most cases, never having played Shakespeare before. . . . In the end . . . I was overjoyed to have a cast who were skilled and comfortable in the idiom and who despite the privations of wind-swept Cornwall very late in the year, cared deeply about their work, about each other, and above all, about Shakespeare." ("Introduction," n.p.). In an interview, he cites text, as opposed to plot or theme, as the primary motivation for filming Shakespeare: "the fundamental reason that one is filming Shakespeare is to take Shakespeare's text to a wider audience" (Crowdus, 37). [Return to essay]

19. See (as well as Beauman) Samuel Crowl (Shakespeare Observed), and J. L. Styan (The Shakespeare Revolution). [Return to essay]

20. The most detailed documentation of the textual study that characterized RSC work are the well-known workshop videos featuring Nunn and Barton, and the associated text by Barton (Playing Shakespeare). [Return to essay]

21. Peter Brook characterized Peter Hall's directorship of the RSC in the 1960s as working on the "principle that it was actors in touch with contemporary life - through contemporary works - who had to be the people to interpret Shakespeare" (quoted by Philip Barnes). Alan Sinfield documents "the combination of traditional authority and urgent contemporaneity" that characterized Nunn's directorship and the RSC in the 60s and 70s, though in Sinfield's view, the radicalism is illusory: "[t]he underlying pressure is towards deference and inertia" (159, 178). As Adler notes, in the early 60s "the company was exploring new styles of production and daring to interpret Shakespeare's plays in radical ways . . . [as well as] the production of new works that were radical in both politics and performance style" (56). [Return to essay]

22. In a 1998 editorial about the decline of the RSC, Simon Callow wrote: "for a group to function at the level that the RSC reached under Hall and then Nunn . . . the inspiration, whether from an idea or from an individual, needs to be white hot. Somewhere, they lost their power to inspire their members to think of themselves as . . . an ensemble" ("Theatre: Thrift, Horatio, Thrift! And stuff the Quality" Independent [London], 14 Nov 1998, 12; quoted in Adler, 84). [Return to essay]

23. A sampling: Bugsy (dir. Barry Levinson, 1991), Schindler's List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993), Death and the Maiden (dir. Roman Polanski, 1994). [Return to essay]

24. For treatment of some of these issues in the play, see Michaela Röll, "'Three'-floating Sexuality" and Casey Charles, "Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night." [Return to essay]

25. Act, scene, and line numbers (where appropriate) refer to the text of the play in the Norton edition. Page numbers after "Nunn" are references to the screenplay. [Return to essay]

26. Quotations in italics are Nunn's stage directions in the screenplay. [Return to essay]

27. Kingsley "was determined to play the truth-teller in his own true voice, eschewing make-up and wearing clothes similar to what he wears in life" (Twelfth Night website). Nunn reports Kingsley saying, "I want to be undisguised, unadorned, with a shaven head" (Laroque, 91). [Return to essay]

28. The noun in the text is in the plural - "in the wars" (1.5.11). Maria's delivery of the line is far from the joke it appears to be in the text; her voice is laden with unexplained emotion. The change to "in the war" brings it home from a collective abstraction to some specific war, presumably the recent actions with Messaline, and its effects on Maria (perhaps the death of Olivia's brother?). [Return to essay]

29. The line is only part of a difficult speech about "mending" and "patching" (1.5.37-46) that Nunn keeps remarkably intact. Nunn acknowledges that he faced "the problems of textual length and esoteric language," trying to balance comprehensibility with keeping Feste's language as part of his centrality (Nunn, "Introduction," n.p.). [Return to essay]

30. Coursen has an excellent description of the textual manipulations and "complicated editing" of the scene (207). [Return to essay]

31. The phrase is Eric Brown's (15). [Return to essay]

32. See Richard Burt, Unspeakable ShaXXXpeares, for an excellent analysis of music, voiceover, and its relationship to gender and sexuality,especially Chap. 4: "When Our Lips Synch Together: The Transvestite Voice, the Virtuoso, Speed, and Pumped-Up Volume in Some Over-heard Shakespeares" (1998, 159-202), including a discussion of the overheard songs in Nunn's Twelfth Night. [Return to essay]

33. As Brown notes, the film creates moments in which "promised futures move tantalizingly away, even as uncertain futures wind their way unexpectedly into the present to create a 'golden time' of partial rapprochement" (16). Feste's song with its strong intercutting can be seen as (again, Brown's words), "a temporal disruption in the text that mirrors the temporal divisions unfolding in the film's thematics" (19). [Return to essay]

34. Crowl notes how the film uses lyric for complexity in repeated patterns: "The film keeps returning to music and song. . . to capture the play's lyric quality." He further notes the similarity to operatic lyricism: the revels scene is "a quartet of moving (pun intended) images of love's perplexing variety" (1997: 36). [Return to essay]

35. Geoffrey Macnab notes the Chekhovian aspects of the film (60). [Return to essay]

36. A complex pleasure is figured at the end of this intricate scene, as Nunn gives us a montage of faint smiles, first from Feste and then from his audience -- Viola, Orsino, Andrew, and Toby -- each seeming a little off-balance, and not too sure about how to feel about it. [Return to essay]

37. The concertina is the instrument we have seen him play as he sang "O Mistress Mine" in the kitchen, the tune that for Viola "gives a very echo to the seat / Where love is throned." It is no wonder, then, that Viola stops and greets the musician. [Return to essay]

38. In the screenplay there is a further interchange around the "I do not care for you" idea before Viola does the coin trick. It was cut, perhaps because it would have accelerated the discomfort of Feste's probings too quickly, before Viola had a chance to show her skill at keeping up her disguise. [Return to essay]

39. "Silly" here implies both triviality and in the older meaning mystery (as in the German "selig"). [Return to essay]

40. Nunn himself likens the court of Orsino to "a military academy" (Crowdus, 39). [Return to essay]

41. Richard Burt sees Orsino in Nunn's film as more knowingly gay than I do, citing Orsino's "diminished interest in the revealed Viola [at the end of the film, which suggests] that he preferred her when she was a he" (1997: 244). For me, the power of the final dance with the very womanly Viola enacts the opposite dynamic, suggesting that he prefers her in her "essential" womanliness. [Return to essay]

42. Burt ascribes to Feste - in his interruption of his song and his male voyeuristic gaze - the symbolic action of the disruption of homoerotic potential (1998, 180). I read Feste's role as much more indicative of the acknowledgement of the homoerotic desire, and his interruption of the kiss as a deferral of the almost inevitable heterosexual resolution. Burt seems to see Feste as an agent of a hetero-normative establishment; for me, his scruffiness, intensity, inscrutability, and his eventual disappearance before the coupling at the end of the film mark him as an agent of the counter-culture. [Return to essay]

43. The cliffs and surf are identified with films of tragedy rather than romantic comedy, featuring strongly in films of Hamlet (dir. Laurence Olivier, 1948; dir. Grigori Kozintsev, 1964) and Othello (dir. Orson Welles, 1952; dir. Oliver Parker, 1995). [Return to essay]

44. A review by Sean Means shows how the film's highlighting of sexuality triggers a degree of contemporaneity surprising to a film audience: "What kind of sick, twisted pervert was this Shakespeare guy anyway? Someone who was ahead of the game. . . ." The review ends by ranking the film among recent Shakespeare movies as "perhaps the most modern (even more so than the tres-chic Romeo & Juliet)" (n.p.). [Return to essay]

45. The chemistry between the two actresses is strong, as well: Helena Bonham Carter sensually shows her character's fascination with the prettiness of Imogen Stubbs. The film website notes that the two were at school together, and quotes Stubbs' comment that "Whenever I play with Helena, it's very giggly. . . ." As Crowl notes, "Nunn's camera richly caresses the pert and ripe profiles of Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter as they move in and out of entanglement" (1997: 37). [Return to essay]

46. Nunn literalizes the publicness of this move by cutting to Malvolio's startled response from within the house. [Return to essay]

47. The restraint of Nunn's treatment is in contrast with an earlier film version of Twelfth Night, a 1972 Playboy production (dir. Ron Wertheim), which I have not seen. In this production, as described by Richard Burt, lesbian sexuality is explicitly displayed, though "gay male sexuality is pretty much written out of the film's authentic coupledom" (1997: 264). [Return to essay]

48. See, for example, Joseph Pequigney, "The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice." [Return to essay]

49. The screenplay indicates that some gesture of union was originally intended for the final scene, but it seems to have been cut: Orsino was to release Antonio from his handcuffs, bring him to Sebastian, who then would take him to Viola (Nunn, 126). Whether this was seen as a restorative for Antonio or a further slap in the face is hard to tell: what would he say or think of this woman disguised as his beloved? [Return to essay]

50. For example, see Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety and Michaela Röll, "'Three'-floating Sexuality." [Return to essay]

51. The way the film and its marketing pull back from the homoerotic may have to do with the secondary school market for a well-performed video of such a frequently taught play as Twelfth Night. Elaine Hobby points out that section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act of 1988 in the U.K. forbids a local authority to promote the teaching of homosexuality. Even without such a law, she asserts, few public schools in England or the U.S. can dare to seem gay-promoting (125). As Russell Jackson notes, "Shakespeare films have always had a peculiar and privileged 'afterlife', accentuated since the late 1970s by their greater availability in video form for home consumption and school and university study." This afterlife, as Jackson argues, tends to increase the danger that film and text work together to extended a fixed, iconic, and essentially conservative status for "Shakespeare" (100-101). [Return to essay]

52. See Jonathan Crewe, "In the Field of Dreams," and Marjorie B. Garber, Vested Interests. Boose and Burt note the recent connection of the study of transvestite performance in Shakespeare with pop culture figures ("Totally Clueless?," 10). [Return to essay]

53. Video box (New Line Home Video) and Fine Line website. Matt Wolf noted in his review that "anyone expecting 'The Birdcage' or 'To Wong Foo'-style hi-jinks will be in for a surprise." Eric Brown also comments on the disjunct between the "rollicking, gender-bending jeu d'esprit" suggested by the marketing, and the disruptions and chiaroscuro of the film itself (28). [Return to essay]

54. Stephen Buhler also notes the transgressive suggestion of the marketing, and comments that "the most transgressive elements in the resulting film involve Nunn's own anxiety about rearranging Shakespeare's materials. . . " (156). [Return to essay]

55. In his comparison of the play Twelfth Night with the film The Crying Game (dir. Neil Jordan, 1992) Jonathan Crewe sees the play as using homoeroticism and cross-dressing to critique and partly undo the enforced marriage plot, but asserts that the play cannot "access a fully utopian multiplicity of gender and desire" (102). Its transgressive aspects are finally seen only as transitional: "Same-sex desire . . . [is] a transitional phase in the otherwise intractable heterosexual marriage plot, while the pretty youth serves as a transitional object" (108). Crewe's article, published in 1995, does not of course reference Nunn's 1996 film. [Return to essay]

56. Nunn's choice here to give Viola a separate room - implausible in this barracks atmosphere - maintains her "womanly" privacy. Osborne notes that nineteenth-century performance editions of the play also "downplay . . . the impropriety of Viola's stay in Orsino's house" (1996: 92). Similarly, Nunn plays up the modesty of Viola as she attends at Orsino's bath. [Return to essay]

57. It may be that her surprise at the fencing-master's touch indicates not just concern for her disguise, but sexual interest as well. [Return to essay]

58. A related collage on the cover of the published screenplay makes the heterosexual teleology even clearer. It shows not the dangerous triangle but a safe gathering of four principals, undisguised and ready to be matched as the end of the play will have it. [Return to essay]

59. The screenplay indicates that Maria looks "clandestinely at Feste who is shaking his head slowly at her. Maria breathes deeply, and then goes with whatever dignity she can retain." Presumably, "shaking his head" is not meant to indicate dissent, as it would in U.S. usage; or perhaps the intended gesture was reversed in shooting. At any rate, the film clearly shows Feste nodding "yes." [Return to essay]

60. Liminality is a key theme in Eric Brown's detailed analysis of madness and deferral in Nunn's film. [Return to essay]

61. Antonio's posture before the gates of Olivia's echoes Masaccio's great fresco, The Expulsion from Paradise. [Return to essay]

62. The shot with its distance and avoidance of any inquiry into Malvolio's own reactions or subjectivity, echoes the detachment of Anthony Hopkins in the elegiac period piece, The Remains of the Day (dir. James Ivory, 1993). [Return to essay]

63. More than one reviewer commented on the conservatism of the resolution: "the lovers are joyously sorted along traditional hetero lines" (Dan Hulbert, Atlanta Constitution). Peter Marks in the New York Times indirectly quotes Nunn as saying that "the relationship between the Duke and Viola, in her male guise, is ambiguous and blossoms into love the moment she reveals herself to be a woman." In quotes on the film website, Nunn twice uses the phrase "real love" to characterize Orsino in his love for the Viola he knows to be a woman. [Return to essay]

64. Such line dances, with their democratic inclusiveness, figure strongly in the Jane Austen films, for example in the several balls filmed in Persuasion (dir. Roger Michell, 1995). In Nunn's version, the dance quite self-consciously includes the "downstairs" folk - servants, gardeners (Fabian), sea captains, in happy togetherness with their privileged masters. [Return to essay]

65. Since credits now normally mark the end of a film, at least half of my students left the film during the dance. [Return to essay]

66. I do not mean to imply that the "theatrical" excludes lyric, but that the theatrical is in the standard Western repertory based primarily in the spoken rather than the sung. [Return to essay]

67. I'm grateful for the help of my students at Oberlin College, with whom I first discussed this film, and the encouragement and suggestions of my colleagues, particularly Mike Reynolds, Scott McMillin, David Young, Kate Thomas, Robert Pierce and Phyllis Gorfain. [Return to essay]


Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).