"How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?": A Problematic (Re)interpretation of Maria in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Nigh

Article excerpt

About one-third of the way into Trevor Nunn's film Twelfth Night (1996), the maidservant character Maria (Imelda Staunton) summons her fellow cronies-Sir Toby (Mel Smith), Sir Andrew (Richard E. Grant), and Feste (Ben Kingsley)-to join her in a plot against Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne), the stuffy steward who eliminates all fun from their household. Laughing, drinking wine, and openly badmouthing Malvolio's name, Maria gathers her conspirators around a parlor table and rattles off her plan of action: she will write-in the hand of her lady, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter)-a phony love letter to Malvolio, which will prompt the pretentious steward not only to don a very uncharacteristic smile and yellow stockings ("a color [Olivia] abhors"), but also to woo an oblivious Olivia in the process.

The Maria character in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is generally interpreted in this same light: as feisty, witty, and outgoing. After all, within the text the clever maidservant challenges Feste's bawdy puns with her own, openly confronts her fiance about his sloppy drinking habit, and most significantly, initiates the conspiracy against Malvolio. In Nunn's adaptation however, this plotting scene is the only one in which Maria assumes this traditional role. As a matter of fact, throughout the remainder of the film she is represented as the complete opposite in nature-somber, introverted, and matronly-an interpretation that makes the character, and thus the onscreen portrayal, somewhat problematic.

Imelda Staunton's uncharacteristic portrayal of Maria in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night works against the plausibility of the narrative's subplot, largely because Staunton's onscreen depiction of a timid, melancholy spinster contradicts Maria's commanding (and expected) role as the initiator of the Malvolio scheme: in addition, some of the camerawork and editing choices (both filmic and textual) around Staunton's scenes reinforce this inconsistency, as both tend to distance her significantly from her conspiring cohorts.

In an interview for the film's official Web site, Staunton remarks that she took on the role of Maria twice before but that she did not truly enjoy it. She further comments that "what's so good about this adaptation is that [Maria] is not a pert and jolly maid but a woman of a certain age who is desperate to catch Sir Toby-it's her last chance. So she's prepared to be cruel to Malvolio (who's been cruel to her), to get what she wants." Suffice it to say, these ideas come through clearly in the film, as this Maria is a long way from "pert" and "jolly." Those film critics who discuss Staunton's interpretation (it seems that most avoid her role) recognize this atypical portrayal as well. Stanley Kauffmann for instance says that Maria is played "without an iota of merriment." Jonathan Coe contends that Staunton (along with Mel Smith and Richard E. Grant) "make[s] slightly heavy weather of the comic relief." And Gary Crowdus claims that Maria "is a much less comic figure than usual," and (much like Staunton herself) that "she sees in Toby her last, desperate chance at love." Although these critics do not explicitly voice it in their reviews, they seem to suggest that it is not necessarily Staunton's acting that is unsettling to watch, but her character interpretation. Rightly so, there is something rather peculiar here as Staunton's disposition conflicts with the typically delightful Shakespearean character.

The first time we see Maria in Nunn's version she and Malvolio are examining Olivia's kitchen. While Maria, Malvolio, and two other male attendants enter the kitchen, non-diegetic music is played-full of the pomp and circumstance that Nunn more than likely wants us to identify with the pretentious Malvolio. Maria follows closely behind Olivia's chief steward, who is busy inspecting the servant girls' hands, and with only his gestures calling order about the kitchen. At the same time, Maria holds in her arms a notepad and pencil, ready at any moment to jot down even the slightest wrongdoing of the servants before her. …

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