Sunday, September 23, 2018

Twelfth Night (1969)

The Gender Bending the Rules Blogathon is an event which looks at roles where men play women and women play men (and other variations) hosted by The Midnite Drive-in and Angelman's Place. For a list of participating bloggers visit the links at the host sites.

Twelfth Night (1969)
YouTube viewing

I've written about William Shakespeare here before, but only in a limited sense. This seems like a good spot to go in more detail.

In college, I took an acting class and I performed a scene from Hamlet. I thought I had a grasp of the meaning behind the lyricism of the words and the outdated language, but only after I read and re-read the scene a bunch of times. I think you have to see Shakespeare performed by professionals to get a real sense of what's going on and what his characters are meant to be like.

It's a stereotype that the British do him better than anyone else, but he's part of their national heritage. It kinda makes sense! His words just sound better when they come out of the mouths of Patrick Stewart or Judi Dench or Kenneth Branagh — though we Americans are no slouches when it comes to the Bard. I once saw Richard III with Denzel Washington at Shakespeare in the Park, for example, and he was riveting.

Still, when it comes to the Bard, none of these people can compare to that great, great Polish actor, Josef Tura. You've probably heard of him.

Today's subject, Twelfth Night, was written by the man himself in approximately 1601 and performed as early as February 1602, in London. It so happens this was one of the SITP plays this summer. Virginia and I tried to get tickets as part of the free lottery, but our number didn't come up.

Viola, the main character, searches for her missing brother by disguising herself as a man. Why? I'm not sure. The version I watched, a UK television production from 1969 starring Joan Plowright, was fine, but it left me no clearer on this point. She didn't seem in any imminent danger as a woman, her country wasn't at war with the country she was in, and she wasn't the practical joker type. Maybe it's one of those things you have to accept as a given.

Anyway, as a man, Viola gets caught up in a love triangle with some local nobles. She's crushing on this guy, but he only knows her as a man; meanwhile, this other chick falls for her as a man. There's also a subplot in which another dude secretly loves the other chick and is made into a fool for her. Can you tell this is a Shakespeare story?

As a woman impersonating a man, Plowright doesn't bother lowering her rather high-pitched voice, but then, she is supposed to be a young man. Never mind the fact she was forty when she made this film — I certainly didn't believe she was as young as she was supposed to be — but the production made the film look like a play, so again, you gotta roll with it.

Plowright also played her long-lost brother Sebastian. Talk about gender bending — she was a woman playing both a woman disguised as a man and an actual man! (Body doubles and clever editing helped sell the illusion when they finally meet.)

I suppose this is no sillier than A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Taming of the Shrew. I was willing to play along until the end, when Viola's masquerade is lifted and everyone somehow seemed okay with her deception. That made no sense to me...

...though it was no fault of the cast. Alec Guinness was particularly good. One forgets that before he first picked up a lightsaber, he was a really good comedic actor.

I should also make note of the fact that in Shakespeare's era, men played women. While that was a sign of the times, the gender barrier was subverted, and ultimately broken, sooner than you might expect. Check out this essay from the British Library on Shakespeare and women actors.

Finally, I'm sure you'll be thrilled to know the one time I performed in drag was at summer camp a little over twenty years ago. It was talent night, and these 8-year-old girls roped me into doing a skit with them where I played a woman getting a makeover at a beauty salon. Didn't have to do much; they did all the real work. How did it feel to wear a dress? Meh. The context was more cutesy than provocative.

Other gender bending films:
Some Like it Hot
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
La Cage Aux Folles


  1. Great review on a production I was not aware of. You are right, acting Shakespeare is VERY hard...I did Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew...but very rewarding; the Brits do it best, true. I love Plowright, but she is a bit long in the tooth to play Viola. Funny, I was just watching Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone starring Vivien Leigh as an over-40 actress playing Viola in Twelfth Night and bombing on opening night!

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon!!

  2. If I had to do an entire production of a Shakespeare play instead of a single scene, I'd be very intimidated, but then, I'm not a professional actor. I imagine if one can do Shakespeare, one can do almost anything.

  3. I've read more Shakespeare than the average person. (I even named my muse, a teddy bear which has to be seen to be believed, "Puck", after a character in "A Midsummer Night's Dream") But I must admit I have seen very few productions of the plays. I should watch more, I know. I'll look for this.

  4. This production is available on YouTube.

  5. I'm very fond of Twelfth Night. I go through phases where I enjoy Shakespeare's comedies more than his dramas and then I switch.

    Viola was my favourite character to do in acting class - at least she seemed to come off best. I assumed her disguise had to do with the shipwreck and she wanted to travel freely without being recognized and forced back home like a good girl before she found her brother.

    Sometimes we forget how humans have been reversing type since time began. The reasons are varied and it makes for fun theatre.

  6. I thought her disguise had to do with her shipwreck too, but what danger was she in? I never had any sense she was running or hiding from someone or something.

    1. A young chap might have more freedom to roam about than a young lady.


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