Shakespeare's grandest dance with love and death is "Twelfth Night," which might be called a farce with grief or, equally, a tragedy with yuks. Whichever, as gloriously realized by Trevor Nunn -- artistic director of England's Royal National Theatre -- and more fun and a lot cleaner than a barrel of monkeys, it finally heaves its bodkin into the Charles today.
This is full-bore, old-fashioned Willie S., without a modernist hip-hop spin to make it palatable to today's teens or a vain movie star to chronicle his own narcissism. This is your big-time English BBC professional Shakespeare, by a rad, glam Shakespearean genius who was named an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company at 28 -- the youngest in history.
Nunn chooses to move the mythical land of Illyria from the traditionalist's romantic medieval times to the late 19th century; with hussars galloping about and muskets shooting off, we could be in Graustark or Ruritania. The move, however, never feels quite arbitrary: The concerns of this brilliant work are startlingly modern, and the age Nunn has chosen sets off their modernity in a way the castles and swords of a vague Middle Ages never quite could.
The plot is dizzy, ditzy and utterly unbelievable. That's what is so good about it. At sea, a ship surrenders to heavy waves, separating two identical though opposite gendered twins, each with the conviction the other has been gobbled by the big green wet. So each is, to begin with, in a state of grief. We follow the delicious Viola (Imogen Stubbs) as she comes ashore. Since her country is at war with Illyria, she disguises herself as a boy, wearing a false mustache that renders her identical therefore to her brother, who, as you may know or have guessed, will show up shortly.
As a guy calling herself Cesario, she is taken into the Duke of Orsino's service and, attracting his attention, soon pressed into duty representing him in his pursuit of the noblewoman Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter). As it turns out, she too is grieving -- her father and brother have just died and she has sworn off men for seven years. Then a very odd thing happens: Grief everywhere turns into love, all of it directed at Viola in her boy-guise of Cesario and of no help at all with her own grief. This is particularly upsetting for Orsino (Toby Stephens) because he thinks she's a he and it has never occurred to him that he could love a he; meanwhile, Olivia thinks it's just ducky but is utterly confused when Cesario keeps turning down her heart-felt romantic declarations.
Messy? You ain't seen nothing yet! Soon enough the boy twin, Sebastian (Stephen Mackintosh), shows up with his real mustache, though never when Viola-as-Cesario is there. This greatly confuses an odd lot of conspirators running around Olivia's estate under the misapprehension the play is about them.
These include Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) and a mystic traveling stand-up comedian named Feste (Ben Kingsley), all of whom, in counterbalance to the slightly more adult main plot, are engineering pranks against Olivia's steward, Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne), whose sin is taking himself too seriously and them not seriously enough, if at all.
The play, when it is not concerned with mistaken gender and cross-conventional forms of attraction, seems to be mainly about drunken cavorting, which Belch, Aguecheek and Feste enjoy endlessly, and we nearly as much.
The story, slight and foolish and anti-realistic as it is, builds almost unbearable tension. We literally ache to see all the wrongs of this strange universe righted and the partners matched appropriately, since Shakespeare informs us early on who should be with whom and why. We yearn, in other words, for the false vanity of grief to be put aside and human nature to be reconnected to life through love and sex. At some level, the play seems to be about the re-infusion of life-force into the pain-isolated.
As a film, the production is full of surprises. Bonham Carter gets ++ top billing and she is small, tight, very smart, but it's Stubbs (the actual Mrs. Nunn) who carries the film. Her Viola is exquisite: smart, tough, clever, yet utterly human in her pain, and so adorable you can hardly keep your hands off the screen.
Of the boys, Kingsley is ever majestic, Hawthorne sadly pompous, Grant and Smith really funny. But again, the surprise is Stephens' quite interesting Orsino. He's a minor character, but he really commands attention.
Starring Helena Bonham Carter and Nigel Hawthorne
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Released by Fine Line Features
Sun Score: *** 1/2
Pub Date: 12/06/96