I first saw this early, bare bones offering from Kenneth Branagh around 20 years ago. At the time I found it hard going and hard to like, but was impressed by Richard Briers' Malvolio and his turn from the hilariously comic to the pitifully tragic.
Watching it again over the last couple of days - at 2 hours 35 I opted to break it up in a couple of sessions - I found it quite hard going once more to start with, but soon fell under its spell; for Twelfth Night is an intricate, thought provoking and mature comedy from Shakespeare that still feels bold, fresh and contemporary today.
Director Paul Kanfo brings Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company production to the screen and Branagh, ever keen to bring Shakespeare's plays forward into a different era, has opted here for a mixture of the Chekhovian and Dickensian, making much of the play's Twelfth Night/Candlemas setting with the introduction of a Christmas Tree and a break into song with The Twelve Days of Christmas. His Illyria is a snowy European kingdom, but the studiobound set is as minimal as can be; all plyboard stone walls and white drapes. There isn't anything necessarily wrong with the basic stage setting (the BBC Shakespeare productions of the 70s and 80s employed similar minimal production design and they by and large remain exemplary) as it allows the text to take centre stage, but I did find Pat Doyle's score a touch intrusive and too loud for the setting. This is especially painfully obvious when his plinky piano all but drowns out the silky voice of Christopher Ravenscroft's Orsino during the 'If music be the food of love...' speech, performed in a desolate, melancholic style that the overbearing score fails to chime with.
This time around I took notice of more than just Briers. I was especially impressed with several performances, notably Abigail McKern who is simply outstanding as the minxish Maria. Daughter of Leo McKern, she performs the complexity at the heart of the character exceptionally well. It is easy to see why Toby Belch etc succumb to her charms; she is likeable, witty and sharp and clearly a natural leader for the subversive gang of mischief makers. But the production and McKern's performance is always aware of the fact that she is the leader of a clique, with all the dark cruelty such a position brings about. She implicates us, the audience, into her sadistic pleasures right up until we see how far Malvolio falls from a direct result of her plotting. And a good Maria requires an exceptional Malvolio and we certainly have that in Briers who portrays the priggish steward with enough humanity to ensure he never strays into caricature and, his pitiable presence in the cell under the stairs, is a sucker punch to the audience who have previously laughed along with those two arch bullies, Maria and Toby Belch (the splendid James Saxon).
Briers was of course famous for his performances in comedy and he is utterly hilarious here in his yellow stockings and manic fixed grin when he believes he has captured the heart of his mistress Olivia (Caroline Langrishe) and he delivers Shakespeare's filthiest joke with aplomb; "By my life, this is my lady's hand these be her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her great P's" I mean really, can we even call something so singularly suggestive a double entendre? Talbot Rothwell would be proud of a line like that!
Also worth plaudits is James Simmons as the hapless knight Andrew Aguecheek. His thin whey faced features peer from beneath lank blonde locks with a perpetually blank look at all times, hilariously convincing us that his character never has a clue as to what is going on around him; a good natured soul lost in a clique of bullies and schemers.
Frances Barber's Viola is a sympathetic heroine, teary at several points in a manner which easily conveys her wandering in this strange land and her imprisonment within the disguise of a boy. I don't think I really bought her sibling relationship to Christopher Hollis' Sebastian, primarily - though perhaps unfairly - because they don’t much look like one another, and also because their reunion lacked the necessary emotional punch. Hollis' scenes with Antonio, played gently and affectionately by Tim Barker, was a joy to watch. They had chemistry and it continues to strike and amaze that Shakespeare was writing of gay love back then.
I would definitely recommend this take on Twelfth Night but would advise caution to anyone expecting the usual grand offerings from Branagh; this is very much a prototype of what he wanted to do and what he would go on to do and, if studiobound, not especially visually arresting productions aren't to your taste, you may well find this as hard going as I did twenty years ago. But stick with it, it will ultimately impress.