Last Thursday night I went to the home of my sister Bridget and her fiance Terry, for a movie night. Bridget is a Drama major at the University of Waterloo, and so we were talking about her courses and projects and what it is about drama that she loves so much. Ten years ago I was in the same position: I was a drama major myself, at the time, so it was fun to reminisce about theatre life.
The movie we eventually chose, then, was the 1996 film adaptation of “Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will”, starring some of my favourite actors: Helena Bonham Carter, Imogen Stubbs, Nigel Hawthorne, Ben Kingsley.
It was wonderful! Surely one of the finest film adaptations of Shakespeare I’ve seen in a very long time. Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio was absolutely hilarious: the clueless upper-class twit who tries to court the love of Lady Olivia. It’s the little subtleties of a performance which make it so wonderful: for instance, his ever-so-slight adjustment of his hair, by which we see it is a toupé; or his checking his pocket watch by a sundial, and then his adjusting of the sundial! What kind of character has the audacity to correct The Sun? It was a brilliant scene. Lady Olivia is played by Helena Bonham Carter, whose own performance is just delicious. There was frustration, obsession, confusion, sweetness, and determination, all rolled together, and so many little things she did with her eyes that made me want to turn into a small puddle of happy goo.
Ben Kingsley as the Fool was just wonderful to watch as well. He looked a little like Uncle Fester, bald, big ears, big nose, just on the edge of clownishness, but with a lot of dignity too. In typical Shakespearean fashion, the Fool is sometimes the one anchor of stability in the turbulence of the plot, the one character who can be relied on to see things as they really are. He sings, you know, and his song at the end of the play (Shakespeare’s own closing piece) was done with such love and affection, and pleasure in life. he looked at the camera as he walked away, with a nod and a wink, as if to say “Got your number!” My sister squealed. Actually, so did I.
One other thing: the music was by Shawn Davies, an Irish composer, and one of my favourite all time classical composers. He used to make ‘theme albums’ like The Pilgrim, The Brendan Voyage, and Granuaile, collections of songs about people and events in Irish history, for full symphony orchestra accompanied by traditional irish instruments. His musical arrangement of the Shakespearean songs (which Ben Kingsley has to sing!) are quite memorable, and I’m going to learn to play one or two of them myself.
A literature that could make you drunk with pleasure; a story and a drama that shows you who you are, with all your greatness and your folly, your wisdom and your nonsense, your goodness and your wickedness, wretchedness, and misery, and yet leaves you with the feeling that life is worthwhile–that is Shakespeare. We Pagans may do well to find, or to create, such a literature for ourselves. We’re pretty good at producing songs, poetry, and rituals that are emotionally gratifying. I think it’s time to aim a little higher.