Inter-Cutting in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night

By Sheppard, Philippa | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Inter-Cutting in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night


Sheppard, Philippa, Literature/Film Quarterly


In his subtle and intelligent screen adaptation of Twelfth Night, English dramaturge Trevor Nunn has improved on Shakespeare's original, at least from a twenty-first century perspective. Nunn has made the counterpoint between the main plot and subplot more immediate and explicit, and therefore more effective for contemporary viewers through text cuts and changes, especially through inter-cutting (alternating shots from two or more sequences to suggest parallel action). Thus, despite its comparative failure in the box office, Nunn has achieved what film directors of Shakespeare strive to accomplish: He has rendered the play accessible to a larger audience by truly translating it to the new medium.1

Nowhere is this translation more striking than in act two, scenes three and four in which Nunn, through skillful textual editing and inter-cutting, conveys Shakespearean richness of theme and character in a bare fraction of the dialogue. Nunn cuts between two chief locales: Lady Olivia's kitchen, in which Feste sings "O Mistress Mine" to Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and, in a significant inclusion, Maria; and Duke Orsino's smoking room, in which Cesario and Orsino are engaged in a game of cards. He also makes quick cutaways to Malvolio's and Olivia's bedchambers. Feste's song provides a connecting tissue, as it is played on the piano in Orsino's smoking room, while Feste's voice from the kitchen floats up in voice-over to Olivia and Malvolio in their respective bedrooms.

Even spectators well versed in the play will not at first recognize how much he has changed these scenes, so true are they to the spirit of the original. Nunn wields his pared-down script and his inter-cutting technique to accelerate and clarify the parallelism that exists in Shakespeare's play from scene to scene. The greater control over audience perception that a film director has compared to a theatrical director also goes some way to explaining the increased clarity of Nunn's version. Shakespeare's original structure and his medium allow the audience to consider any number of aspects when watching these scenes, and the thematic connection between the two scenes may thus be lost. A film controls audience response much more tyrannically than a play; semiotician Susan Sontag writes of the "more unrefusable impact on the eye" of film in contrast to theater (347). Filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin reminds us that film editing "builds the scenes from separate pieces, of which each concentrates the attention of the spectator only on that element important to that action ... editing is in actual fact a compulsory and deliberate guidance of the thoughts and associations of the spectator" (84, 87). Despite the greater focus and control, Nunn does not lose much of the rich significance of Shakespeare's scenes; rather, he is able to crystallize some of the key points through the economy exacted by the new medium.

While changes to the text are important in achieving this crystallization, Nunn's use of inter-cutting is also paramount. This technique allows the director to achieve at least four objectives: one, it fulfills a structural function in suggesting that two or more scenes are occurring simultaneously; two, it thus adds to the suspense and pacing of the film; three, it creates dramatic irony by giving the audience more knowledge than any of the characters; and four, it creates parallelism, allowing the intercut scenes to comment on one another. In my chronological analysis of the section, it is this last effect of inter-cutting that will be the primary focus, but the first three are worth considering briefly.

It is the swift movement from setting to setting, sometimes in as little as a few seconds, that suggests simultaneity. Nunn reinforces the impression of concurrence by having the same music played in both of his locales, starting and ending at the same time. Alfred Hitchcock uses the same technique in The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which the audience is transported back and forth from the Albert Hall to a gang's hideout, all the while listening to the same concert, live in the Hall, and over the radio in the hideout. …

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