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Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Network DVD
£12.99
(2009)

Complete the sequence - Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Alec Guinness, Dame Joan Plowright and ????? Not too many readers will have guessed that the fourth big name in John Sichel's amusing 1969 TV version of Twelfth Night, first broadcast the following year, is Tommy Steele rather than Dame Joan's husband, the future Lord Olivier.

Like Will Shakespeare, released this year as well, this beautifully spoken production, adapted by John Dexter, was first broadcast on ATV, the ITV company broadcasting in the Midlands.

Although the text is cut to only 100 minutes, this does not prevent Tommy Steele playing Feste from twinkling as only he can and singing at every opportunity.

Lady Olivier makes an unlikely boy as Viola but doubling as her brother Sebastian is rather more convincing. The other big guns play contrasting comic parts. A wonderful Ralph Richardson plays an exceedingly drunk Sir Toby Belch, who, against the text, is significantly taller than a fey John Moffatt in the role of his sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Alec Guinness, who is an absolute joy when yellow stockinged and cross-gartered, makes a surly, humourless Malvolio. This steward seems fully deserving of his comeuppance, which comes courtesy of Maria, played by Sheila Reid. That actress nowadays exclusively takes roles as dotty Scottish senior citizens, but proves very seductive in this part and carries the humour off well with a cut glass English accent.

Gary Raymond is handsome as Orsino and seems as melancholy at his failures to woo a particularly winning Adrienne Corri's Olivia, as she is at the loss of loved ones and the inability to persuade young Cesario, yet another Dame Joan incarnation, to become her beau.

While the budget for casting was almost unlimited, it seems to have soaked up all that was available, judging by an incredible cardboard set that would certainly not pass muster in these more savvy broadcasting times.

However, with Shakespeare the set is far less important than the plotting and the acting. Even though some of the depth has been removed with the cuts, what remains contains enough comedy and pathos to please even an ITV audience. The acting is inevitably of the highest quality, although the style is strange for the medium, eschewing naturalism for a determinedly theatrical, in the luvvy sense, performance.

This is a DVD that will be treasured by those lucky enough to buy or receive it, as it shows a well chosen cast working effectively in a brief but worthwhile version of a much loved Shakespearean favourite.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher