Twelfth Night – Shakespeare in Performance

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Twelfth Night – Shakespeare in Performance
by VSS

Twelfth Night is a Shakespearian comedy about mistaken identity, gender confusion, love and suffering it causes and the foolishness of ambition. I will be comparing Shakepeare’s text from Bevington’s “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”, to both the 2003 film version of Twelfth Night directed by Tim Supple and the 1996 film Twelfth Night directed by Trevor Nunn.

Is it more important to follow the text in a Shakespeare film adaptation or the tone? These are two very different adaptations of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Supple’s version generally follows Shakespeare’s text while Nunn’s version is focuses more on the comedic elements than staying true to the text. Supple’s fresh approach comes from the multi-ethnic casting choices. These choices add another element of tension and sensuality to the story. In Shakespeare’s text we assume all characters are white and the only barriers are gender and class. The focus then is solely on the story at hand. Nunn’s version does not mix race and all characters are Caucasian. Supple however uses three racially segregated groups to tell the story. Orsino and his court are Black, Olivia and her court are White, and Viola/Sebastian are Indian As Supple takes liberties with race, Trevor Nunn takes his liberties in his interpretation of the play, adding and subtracting lines, helping the viewer more easily understand the play, regardless if they have read it before or know the story line. It is clear fairly early on that Nunn’s focus is in the comedic elements of the play. Supple takes a more somber, serious approach. Nunn uses every opportunity; facial expressions, inflections, gestures and inferences, to further the lighthearted and comedic feel throughout the film. Supple’s use of the comedy fall awkwardly flat and is sometimes is such a stark contrast to the dark tone that it seems quite out of context.

Even before the opening scenes you can already hear the stark differences in the feel of each film. The choice of music styles behind the narration sets the tone and the stage for two very different themes. Supple’s music is melancholy and distinctly Middle Eastern. Nunn however uses a folk ballad complete with words, that even though they tell a somewhat sad tale, the lighthearted measure is not at all the melancholy feel that was Supple’s choice. We cannot know of course what music type and feel Shakespeare might have chosen, if any, but I would assume that any music used would be of Shake spears time period.

Shakespeare’s direction for the opening scent in Act I scene is simply, “Enter Orsino Duke of Illyria, Curio, and other lords (with musicians)”. Supple’s version sets the stage with Middle Eastern music and frequently flashes between scenes of a young Indian male and female (Viola and Sebastian), narrowly escaping some type of militia setting fire to their building and carting away their mother. He then flashing to a scene where a Black Orsino is listening to a performance at his estate. Orsino interjects his first lines “If music be the food of love, play on…” to what appears to be an Indian male playing piano with an Indian female singing opera. The Indian performers are not unlike Viola and Sebastian in that in their appearance they could be brother and sister, are of Indian decent and are also performers. I never quite put together the directors meaning of these similarities, to me it just seemed distracting. I did find it interesting how Supple choses specific words to flash and back and forth between his scene with the opera concert and Viola and Sebastians escape from danger. Orsino’s line “Me thought she purged the air of pestilence”, is followed immediately by a flash to Viola and Sebastian in the bowels of a ship very dirty, cramped. We are then back to Orsino describing his feelings upon first seeing Lady Olivia, “That instant was I turned into a hart, and my desires, like...
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