I've watched 2 versions of 12th Night.
This is the 1st one, directed by Kenneth Branagh for the stage and by Paul Kafno for the screen:
On Friday I watched this one, directed by Tim Carroll for the stage and by Ian Russell for the screen:
It's difficult, and perhaps unfair, to compare them, because they have very different approaches to Shakespeare's play and both are well done. Kenneth Branagh's version is sadder, darker, more serious; the actors more restrained with a more naturalistic style of acting. It has a dark palette, mostly using colours such as black, grey, brown, etc. and a bleak background, which add to the melancholic tone of the play. Tim Carroll's version, on the other hand, is merry, comic to the point of being over-the-top now and then, hilarious from the beginning to the end except a few moments of melancholic songs. Both the clothes and the background have lots of colours, strong and bright and cheerful, focusing more on the festive spirit of Shakespeare's play. If in Kenneth Branagh's version some characters bring laughter (Sir Toby, Maria, Andrew Aguecheek, Malvolio...) and some are serious (Viola, Olivia, Orsino, Sebastian...), in Tim Carroll's, all are comic and amusing, even hysterical.
It's probably a personal thing to prefer 1 version to another. What you will. I myself prefer the playful approach. Why? Because the play is set in the time of fun and festivals. Because the ending is in some sense absurd- even if you don't question Orsino's transference of love from Olivia to Viola, as some critics do, you may wonder about Olivia's marriage to Sebastian, a man she doesn't know (or at best, accept it as a convention, or a device to untangle the knots of the play). Because in my opinion it's better to treat Orsino and Olivia as ludicrous characters, because that's how they are- Orsino's more in love with love than with his beloved and Olivia immerses herself in ceremonial grief and quickly afterwards, mistakenly, falls in love with a woman in disguise. They are delusional, and ridiculous. I think Kenneth Branagh takes them a bit too seriously.
I don't mind the depiction of Viola, though I like her. Some critics, such as Harold Bloom, wonder why a person like Viola could fall in love with Orsino. Some others question her silence at the end of the play, and ask whether they can be happy together. After all 12th Night can be interpreted in different ways and Tim Carroll's choice is another interpretation.
Besides, 1 of the main themes of 12th Night is indulgence. Orsino overindulges in sentimental love, Olivia in excessive mourning, Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek in fun and drinking... Malvolio can be the opposite of Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek, a killjoy, hostile to pleasure, but he has his own kind of indulgence- self-love. The theme of indulgence is more emphasised as everything is pushed to the extreme in the 2nd version. The theatrical, comic way of acting is more suitable. The absurd approach is more appropriate.
Update on 28/11:
Now I've calmed down, reread the play, reread an essay I'd written some months ago, watched again some scenes in the Kenneth Branagh production, had a look at an American version of 12th Night by Nicholas Hytner, talked to several people and thought carefully about the 2 versions discussed above. I think:
- 1 version focuses a bit too much on the comic, merry aspect and the other a bit too much on the melancholic aspect.
- I still think that Kenneth Branagh takes Orsino and Olivia a bit too seriously.
- People, discussing this Shakespeare play, tend to forget 2 characters in the background- Antonio and Andrew Aguecheek. Antonio, mistaking Olivia as Cesario for Sebastian, feels betrayed and gets hurt and afterwards is forgotten. Note, in the last scene, when Sebastian appears and the knot is untied, Antonio only speaks once, expressing surprise and asking if that's truly Sebastian. That's it. He says no more for the rest of the play, nobody cares about him, and the audience may even forget about him. His silence is more puzzling than Viola's. At this, the Kenneth Branagh version is better. I remember nothing about Antonio in the other version.
Andrew Aguecheek is a foolish character, but we're meant to feel sorry for him, not only laugh at him. His line "I was adored once too" is deeply sad. Again, the Kenneth Branagh version depicts this better.
- Some of the humour in the Tim Carroll version is lost when I watch some scenes again.
- The presence of the audience in the Tim Carroll production can become rather irritating, because they laugh and that is reminiscent of sitcoms. I don't like sitcoms.
However, as I've said, these 2 productions take 2 very different approaches, based on 2 different interpretations, and all the different choices in each production fit well together. Both are well done.
Now look at this version by Nicholas Hytner:
There are people who like it, I suppose. Personally I find it ridiculous. Just ridiculous.