Twelfth Night (2018): a passion project both fuelled and frustrated by textual fidelity

Shalini Peiris as Olivia (source: www.shantyproductions.com)

Whilst the stripped back, modern-day domesticity of Shanty Productions’ Twelfth Night has clearly been influenced by Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (now six years old — how did that happen?), a more immediate and apt point of comparison is the version of The Merry Wives Of Windsor directed by Fiona Laird for the RSC last year. The aesthetic and performances in Laird’s production were overtly influenced by the brand of reality-soap hybrids currently populating such small-screen channels as ITV2 and E4 in the UK, with a healthy dollop of seventies British sitcom stirred in — the latter emphasised further still by the camerawork during the live theatre broadcast.

Adam Smethurst’s screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s more highly-regarded comedy is regularly at its strongest when wholeheartedly embracing precisely these influences. With South East England standing in for play’s setting of Illyria, Twelfth Night could easily at times be retitled The Only Way Is Sussex. This is especially true of the scenes focused upon the younger and more privileged Illyrians, such as when Olivia (Shalini Peiris) makes her first appearance stepping from the back seat of a shiny black car hiding behind fashion sunglasses and wrapped in a fur-lined coat. Orsino (Ben Whybrow) is similarly transformed into a spoiled millennial, delivering his famous opening speech whilst moping on the balcony of his trendy apartment overlooking his pool, his attendants-cum-drinking-buddies enabling him to wallow in his love-lorn condition through acoustic guitar improv.

The sitcom influences are never far away either, most clearly in the scenes involving Malvolio, played by seasoned Shakespearean actor Antony Bunsee, whose enjoyment in the role is both obvious and infectious. By turns a priggish party-pooper, lovestruck dupe and ludicrous buffoon, Bunsee effortlessly brings Malvolio to life in a way which demonstrates both a wonderful skill for physical comedy and an insightful understanding of a character too often reduced to a second-rate baddie. The double act of Simon Nagra and Dominic Coleman as Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek respectively is also satisfying throughout, Coleman in particular imbuing Aguecheeck with a foppish feebleness that elevates any scene he appears in.

Steven Miller as Fabian, Dominic Coleman as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Simon Nagra as Sir Toby Belch (source: www.shantyproductions.com)

Smethurst’s decision to shoot his film as a full text version of the play is both admirable and ambitious, especially when considering this is the debut feature both for him and his production company. But it’s a choice which too often results in issues which undercut the film’s many strengths, conflicting with the enjoyable nature of the contemporary setting and influences on Twelfth Night. Ironically for a story with duality at its core, Smethurst seems intent on making his film function as two distinct versions of Shakespeare’s play at the same time for markedly different audiences.

For a start, with a running time of two hours and forty five minutes, Twelfth Night is both overlong and at times far too slow. Whilst some ardent Bardolaters might jump at the chance to experience Shakespeare’s play performed uncut and untampered with on screen, it’s hard to imagine the same young people drawn to the film’s contemporary aesthetic having the inclination or the patience to sit through a version nearly three hours long. Smethurst’s fidelity to his Shakespearean source also leaves him struggling to truly leave his mark as a filmmaker on Twelfth Night. There are signs early on of this being a sociopolitical take on the story as Viola (Sheila Atim, who also plays her twin brother Sebastian in a strong double performance) washes up on a south coast beach as one of several shipwrecked refugees; but Smethurst sadly abandons this potentially interesting contextual choice, making no further reference to it for the remainder of the film’s running time.

There are also moments where either cuts or amendments to the source would have avoided parts of the action feeling so out of place in a modern-day setting, such as when Viola in her disguise as Cesario duels with Sir Andrew. Smethurst offers no explanation as to why the pair use antiquated swords, particularly jarring when brandished by Viola wearing a twenty-first century puffer jacket. The director allowing himself more freedom to adapt Shakespeare’s play for his chosen setting would undoubtedly have resulted in issues such as these being easily resolved.

Twelfth Night ends up as a flawed film of Shakespeare’s play that is nonetheless very easy to like, thanks to both the talent in front of the camera and the obvious passion of those behind it. Despite the relative problems, Shanty Productions’ abilities in bringing Shakespeare to the screen are regularly apparent here. If Smethurst returns to Shakespeare for a future project with his production company — something I sincerely hope he does — then hopefully he’ll give himself more scope to put his own stamp on whichever play he chooses, and let his voice as a filmmaker become all the more distinct.

Twelfth Night is available to stream on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.


This review was originally published at www.film-intel.com on 5th January 2019.