Books: Visions Before Midnight — Why Viola, thou art updated! |
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Why Viola, thou art updated!

As an alternative to Stars on Sunday for those determined on religious entertainment, let me recommend See You Sunday (BBC1), in which, last week, our old friend the Maharishi got an exemplary grilling about his Transcendental Meditation World Plan, with special reference to the role played in it by money. ‘If the Organization is rich, life will be rich,’ the holy person explained. Pressed further on the point, he yelped, ‘I don’t talk in terms of money ... don’t talk to me of money.’ He wanted to talk about something called ‘the individual’, and the ‘full expression’ of its ‘creative intelligence’. All obtainable for twenty quid.

There was a Shakespeare play scheduled. Luckily, considering the circumstances, it was a comedy. In fact the BBC2 linkman announced it as ‘Shakespeare’s evergreen comedy, Twelfth Night’. Evergreen, eh? Should be good. ‘What country, friends, is this?’ ‘This is Illyria, lady.’ Wait a second, though ... it was Regency England! They’d updated the thing! That meant, as usual, biting your nails for a couple of hours while waiting to see how they handled the scene turning on Malvolio’s crossed garters. It’s an impossible scene to manage if the updating ensures that nobody, whether Malvolio or anybody else, is wearing any kind of garters — crossed, plaited or helical — at any other time.

It thus having been carefully arranged that the climactic comic scene would go for nothing, it was the merest act of courtesy to ensure that the rest of the play’s humour, such as it is, should be extirpated too. Sir Toby Belch was played as a stand-in for Sid James. Malvolio himself was played by Charles Gray, an actor whose perfection of suaveness is funny in itself, but who is therefore quite unable to play anyone with pretensions — he is already what he is, and can’t be funny trying to become it. It’s hard for Malvolio not to get a laugh when he tries out the smile recommended in the fake letter, but Gray managed it. To cap all this, the world had been scoured for a black man who sings as badly as I do. After a long search, one was discovered, and he was cast as Feste. The way one’s spirits sank when Feste came capering on is not to be described. Aguecheek, for a mercy, was passable.

The direction was understandably eager to keep proving that the show had been shot expensively on location. There were long tracking shots through colonnades, long static shots down endless hallways, and a different room for almost every scene. The whole production would have been tiresomely incoherent if Shakespeare and Janet Suzman, hand in hand, had not come running to the rescue. The play’s subtly ambiguous emotional entanglements are just the thing for Miss Suzman to get involved in, since she, without being in the slightest degree butch, is none the less a true transsexual actress. She was already established as the only believable Portia I expect to see, and now she is the only credible Viola.

Whether Miss Suzman is being a man or a woman, her deep voice serves her equally well. She has no need to hoot when playing a man: all she has to do is expunge the sweetness. When the sweetness floods back in, she is as female as you could wish. Her face is a classic, making her the kind of man women call beautiful and the kind of woman men call handsome. It was easy to sympathize when Olivia fell for her, even though Olivia’s love was declared, Joan Greenwood-style, from somewhere behind the antrums. It was even easier to sympathize when she, Viola, fell for Orsino. Not that there was much of interest about Orsino except for his habit of using his own stairwell as a drawing-room, but Miss Suzman’s sensuality is an arousingly convincing thing when she lets it roll. She was in a play all of her own — the one Shakespeare wrote, in fact. Her speed and delicacy were just what the bard ordered.

Success Story (BBC1) dealt with Tretchikoff, perpetrator of that picture featuring the green Chinese lady. Presented by the droll William Feaver, the show dug up some people to whom this gaudy atrocity was a genuine aesthetic experience. As one who well remembers having admired trash, I found them hard to laugh at. Commendably, the programme didn’t find them funny either, but contended itself with recording their enthusiasm. Feaver was well aware that popularity is no simple matter. Tretchikoff himself, however, is right up there beside Samson in the front rank of the Philistines. He wants ‘constructive’ criticism, he says — the eternal plea of the kitsch merchant. While waiting for the constructive criticism to appear, he stalks about among his wealth planning new masterpieces.

19 May, 1974

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]