1968: John Sichel
Though this is a perfectly worthy production entirely on its own terms, one must admit that a good part of its charm comes from seeing so many of the veteran actors of the golden age of British cinema on the screen at the same time.
Most of those performances are top-notch. Joan Plowright, whom most of us have seen in more recent roles as an older woman, is here both Viola and Sebastian (thus eliminating the implausibility of two different actors who don’t look very similar, but creating the opposite problem of having to believe that she’s a young man.) She is arguably too old to play either one, since she was nearly forty when this was made; she is nevertheless a very competent performer if that doesn’t bother you a great deal. She brings to the role, perhaps, more intelligence than some of the others who have assayed to play Viola, but somewhat less warmth, and it is of course harder to think of her as the plucky but naive young lady Shakespeare seems to have envisioned. Sir Toby Belch is taken on by Ralph Richardson, one of the acknowledged giants of the British cinema for a generation: his masterly handling of what is, in many respects, a secondary part shows what a capable actor he was. And of course anyone who has seen Star Wars will recognize Alec Guinness as Malvolio — again, however, displaying his remarkable versatility, and in every way unlike the self-assured Obi-Wan Kenobi. Of all the Malvolios I have seen, his is probably the least likeable or sympathetic. Adrienne Corri as Olivia seems a bit on the wooden side — a beautiful but distant object for Orsino’s affection, but without a great deal of character of her own. Orsino himself plays the part a bit on the declamatory side, so perhaps not a lot is lost.
This is another sound-stage piece of cinema (not at all uncommon in the 1960s) and within the limits of that form, the production is very well mounted. There are period backdrops and props that look good enough if you don’t pay too much attention to them, but the ground is a wooden floor everywhere, and the approach to the production, somewhat more tellingly, is intrinsically stagey. There are no long vista shots or pieces of wordless action — none of which is problematic if you’re concentrating on Shakespeare as the quintessential master of language that he is. The chief limitation on the production is that it’s cut to only about a hundred minutes. Inevitably, as one drains pieces of these scenes away, they lose more than just length. Even the final reveleation of brother to sister is truncated to within an inch of incomprehensibility.
If you have the chance to watch only one version of Twelfth Night, I think I’d pick another; but it makes a good comparandum when set alongside others, if only to note the differences in acting styles and presentational formats. It has just recently become available on DVD, but is in general distribution fairly widely.
Antonio: Richard Leech
Captain: Paul Curran
Curio: Kurt Christian
Fabian: Riggs O’Hara
Feste: Tommy Steele
Gardener’s boy: Gerald Moon
Malvolio: Alec Guinness
Maria: Sheila Reid
Olivia: Adrienne Corri
Orsino: Gary Raymond
Priest: John Byron
Sebastian’s Companion: Laurie Goode
Sir Andrew Aguecheek: John Moffatt
Sir Toby Belch: Ralph Richardson
Valentine: Christopher Timothy
Viola and Sebastian: Joan Plowright