I took in Idaho Shakespeare Festival's preview performance of Twelfth Night several weeks ago. ISF's craftsmanship blew me away, as it does every year, but I'm not a Theatridiot, a Playdiot or a Shakespearediot. I'm a Vidiot. So while I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I also left the show with a burning question: Could a version of this play watched on a home theater even hold a candle to one enacted on a stage nestled at the base of the Boise Foothills?
The short answer: no. A living room is a poor substitute for a theater. And I know of no group of actors who better channel the Bard than those from the amphitheater on Warm Springs Avenue.
The longer answer in a moment. First, here's a 3SR (that's "three sentence review"--call it my version of Cliff's Notes) for Twelfth Night: Twins Viola and Sebastian fear the other has drowned, so Viola--in drag as Cesaria--goes to work for the lovesick Count Orsino, who sends Viola/Cesaria to dote upon Olivia. But Olivia falls for Cesaria/Viola, even as other gentlemen--among them her chief attendant, Malvolio--give chase. A love polygon results, and all end up confused and frustrated until the shades are drawn and all characters finally realize their situations.
I ordered two versions of Twelfth Night from Netflix, hoping one of them would feature a modern English script. No such luck. One of them at least bore Kenneth Branagh's name (as producer). I typically find his Shakespearean interpretations outstanding, so I wasn't worried. But this 1988 "filmed play" was made for TV, and though camera angles alternated, the minimal scenery looked scarcely better than a high school drama club's. The interpretation lacked heart, and without fellow audience members chuckling alongside me, the version came up painfully short. I fast forwarded through most of the footage, playing only the parts I'd most enjoyed at ISF. But even those were hard to swallow.
The second movie was an actual movie, with a semi-recognizable cast (featuring Ben Kingsley, Helena Bonham Carter and Richard Grant), a plethora of real-world sets and loads of realistic character interaction and blocking. So kinetic and logical were the movements of these actors that Shakespeare's poetical old English began to even make sense.
Clearly, theater doesn't directly translate to the small screen. But if it's deftly done, it can succeed in cinematic format, even if the original language is intact. If nothing else, watching a film version is a great way to expose the uninitiated to the play prior to attendance. In fact, given its production values, 1996's Twelfth Night should be a fun stand-alone piece for Shakespeare fans. But when compared to the acting chops of locals Sara Bruner, David Anthony Smith (two of my favorites) and ISF newcomer Ian Gould--whose high-pitched antics kept me in stitches all show long--no version of any budget, with any number of Hollywood stars, on any size screen, could compare.
And if you didn't know, when a Vidiot recommends ditching the television for the real world, he means it.