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Monday, 14 February 2011

Valentine Reviews - Manga Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

based upon the play by William Shakespeare
adaptation by Richard Appignanesi
art by Nana Li
textual consultant Nick de Somogyi
Aublisher: Amulet Books

What's It About?
Off the coast of Illyria two twins, Viola and Sebastian, are separated following a violent shipwreck. Believing her brother dead Viola washes up on the shores of Illyria penniless and alone. Disguising herself as a boy she enters the service of the Count Orsino who proceeds to use “him” to ferry messages of love to the Countess Olivia. The countess promptly falls in love with Viola, now known as Cesario.

So, Orsino loves Olivia. Olivia, who is also being courted by Sir Andrew Aguecheek, loves Viola, believing her to be a boy. Viola loves Orsino, who also believes her to be a boy. To add spice to the situation, Olivia's servants have convinced her pompous butler the Countess is in love with him. And then Sebastian, looking identical to his disguised sister, turns up and the fun really begins...

What's Good About It?
There's is a simple, universal truth about Shakespeare that should be beaten into literature teachers from the moment they enter the profession: no one was ever meant to read his work. Actors were meant to perform it and the rest of us were meant to view it. If you want to appreciate Shakespeare the worst thing to do is read the script, the best is to watch a performance and somewhere in the middle lies the Manga Shakespeare series.

As words on a page a Shakespeare play is a dense text of archaic words and incomprehensible jokes. As with a film adaptation the Manga Shakespeare series puts those words into the mouths of visible, observable characters. Its amazing how having characters whose faces emote and match action to their words improves one's appreciation of the story. Take, for instance, the character of Maria, maidservant to Countess Olivia.

Many moons ago at college I studied Twelfth Night and found Maria, read as written, to be an utterly unsympathetic character, a malicious and manipulative individual. With the help of Nana Li's illustrations Maria is transformed into a fuller character: mischievous, intelligent, cunning and a little bit sexy. Most importantly, this transformation occurs without changing a single line of dialogue its all purely down to the artwork.

I'd also like to stress that the whole web of misunderstandings on which the plot of Twelfth Night is based is genuinely funny. The jokes work from the panicked lies and deceptions of poor crossdressing Viola to the drunken antics of Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch to the mischievous wordplay of the Countess' fool Feste.

As a study aid the book comes with some academic pedigree. Textual consultant Nick de Somogyi is a former visiting curator of the Globe Theatre (the home of Shakespeare) and an editor with previous experience preparing Shakespeare for academic consumption so you can be assured of quality and fidelity to the original text.

What's Bad About It?
One of the beauties of Shakespeare is the freedom with which the stories can be adapted into new eras, new settings. The problem with this is that no matter what era or setting the adapter chooses it can only ever be window dressing if they want to stay true to the script. The script is the script is the script and everything else is just props. The steampunk world Nana Li draws is visually interesting and beautifully realised but for all that it is not, it cannot, be explored in detail. In fact, the more fantastic the setting becomes the less the characters are able to interact with it because the dirigibles and daVinci-esque flying machines aren't part of the script.

Whilst I recommend this adaptation as a study aid to help students understand the action of the play it is, of course, no substitute for having the actual script to hand. The adaptation doesn't incorporate act or scene breaks as chapters or in any other form. It will inform your reading of the play but is no substitute for it.

What's the Art Like?
Nana Li draws in a style pretty common to romantic manga: the figures are almost-universally tall and thin with faces drawn just a little too wide to fit the size of their bodies. The facial exaggeration is to give the artist more space to work with expression.

As I've already said, being able to read the emotions of the characters in their faces is one of the main ways in which this adaptation helps the reader make sense of Shakespeare's archaic writing style. There's a certain amount of style in the way Li draws her figures using those delicate, razor-thin lines. Because she isn't empowered to change the script Li makes the most of the pose and dress of her figures, doing interesting things with both as you can see here from the Countess and her Fool.

Li also uses some of the anatomical tricks of manga for comedic effect. Here we have Sir Toby Belch catching the Fool with his hands in the pantry and to get across the Fool's panic Li makes his figure and expression more cartoonish and exaggerated and using motion lines to bring attention to his nervous movements.

This page gives us a perfect example of how Li adds personality to the characters. In particular the maidservant Maria who here defies the butler Malvolio with a look of sheer insolence. This contributes to the impression Li builds across the course of the book of a confident woman who won't be talked down to under any circumstances.

The whole of the “play” is drawn in the black and white style you've already seen with shading limited to a few different grades of letratone dots but there is a small colour section taking the place of the traditional dramatis personae list. Given the number of characters and their unusual names it's a useful feature, I will admit to having to flick back to it a few times myself.

Other Information
Published by Self Made Hero, Manga Shakespeare: Twelfth Night (ISBN 978-0-9558169-9-4) retails for £7.99 and is available from Amazon here. See the Self Made Hero website for details of the other titles in the Manga Shakespeare series (in an act of good taste they have yet to adapt A Winter's Tale and if they ever do I heartily recommend you not touch it with a barge pole).

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