'Twelfth Night' Catches Up With '90s

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

William Shakespeare marches on. In the movie world, that is, continuing his current campaign to replace Jane Austen as the most screenworthy English author of them all.

This year's Shakespeare sweepstakes started with Al Pacino's inventive "Looking for Richard," which blends scenes from "Richard III" with real-life material about the challenge of making Elizabethan drama fresh and relevant for modern audiences.

Now the trend continues with "Twelfth Night," directed by British stage wizard Trevor Nunn, whose credits include blockbusters like "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miserables," not to mention "Cats" and a long list of Royal Shakespeare Company classics.

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Boasting a first-rate cast and a firm sense of verbal and visual poetry, his graceful rendition of this popular romance will be a sure-fire hit if ticket-buyers take to it as enthusiastically as moviegoers did at the Telluride Film Festival, where it had its American premire.

The story of "Twelfth Night" is so complicated that a brief outline will have to suffice. After a shipwreck, young Viola washes up on the coast of Illyria, convinced that her twin brother Sebastian has drowned. Disguised as a boy, she takes a job as servant to a lovelorn duke and helps him woo Olivia, a melancholy countess who's sworn off men for seven years.

Thickening the plot is a power struggle in Olivia's household involving the malevolent Malvolio, the boobish Toby Belch, and the asinine Andrew Aguecheek, all as unattractive as their names. Sebastian also shows up, a trifle soggy but alive and well. Presiding over all the goings-on is Feste the clown, one of Shakespeare's most philosophical comic figures.

If moviegoers make "Twelfth Night" another Shakespeare success story, credit will go largely to energetic acting by Ben Kingsley as Feste, Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio, Richard E. Grant as Aguecheek, and Imogen Stubbs as Viola, to mention just a few of the picture's solid talents.

But no Shakespearean production can make a major impact without a clear vision to guide it, and Nunn's conception of "Twelfth Night" has an idea that's thoroughly modern - postmodern, even - at its core. In his view, he explained at Telluride, the play is all about an issue that's as pervasive and controversial today as it ever was in the past: gender.

Nunn notes that Shakespeare wrote "Twelfth Night" not long after "The Comedy of Errors," a knockabout comedy featuring two sets of identical twins, all male. Pursuing the possibilities opened up by this theme, the Bard then decided to go a step further in the same direction.

"When he chooses as his protagonists twins," Nunn says, "one of whom is a girl and the other [of whom] is a boy, and they are identical apart from their genders, it can't be an accident. It's got to be ... in order to talk about gender, in order to talk about women in love and men in love, and to have a girl in a situation where she's experiencing [part of] what it's like to be a boy in love."

This arrangement allowed Shakespeare to explore the effects of gender on social identity and different degrees of freedom allowed to individuals by a culture's ingrained ideas of what "maleness" and "femaleness" are supposed to mean. Nunn adds that the "thrilling" thing about Shakespeare's approach is that he allows Viola a great deal of liberation, letting her have "male" experiences.

"She doesn't say there are any limits to [her] behavior," he notes, "and [she says] that if I have to fence and ride a horse ... I'll do it, because why shouldn't I involve myself in all of men's experiences?" In the end, Nunn says, Viola emerges with more knowledge of the world than most playwrights would have let her obtain. This is yet another sign that Shakespeare was further ahead of his time than most others of his age could claim to be.

Nunn's version of "Twelfth Night" is performed by a British cast speaking in finely tuned British accents. Asked his opinion of Shakespeare productions using contemporary American accents, Nunn answers that he recently hoped to direct "Antony and Cleopatra" in New York with an American cast. While this project had to be scratched from his schedule for unrelated reasons, it's ironic that the next Shakespeare film arriving in theaters is "Romeo and Juliet," set in a mythical US city and featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes at the head of a mostly American cast speaking in thoroughly American tones.

Directed by Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann of "Strictly Ballroom" fame and opening today, it's an experiment Nunn will be surely rooting for as he heads into a new film of his own - a contemporary tale about art forgery, with nary a twin in sight.

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