I, Malvolio

Tue 22nd – Sun 27th November 2011

reviews

Cleo Hetherington

at 23:36 on 22nd Nov 2011

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‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’. Twelfth Night’s most enduring character, the Puritanical steward Malvolio, exits Shakespeare’s play with this line, and returns to the stage in I, Malvolio, Tim Crouch’s one-man play, which portrays a man on the edge of society and at the end of his tether. Shakespeare lets Malvolio rise and fall, then casts him aside to perfect his conveniently coupled ending, but I, Malvolio, written and performed by Crouch, brings the wronged man back to enact his revenge.

The potential problem with a play such as this is: how much previous knowledge should one assume that the audience has? Crouch pitches it exactly right. Even without knowing each twist of Twelfth Night’s plot, I, Malvolio is an intensely rewarding experience, but the more knowledge of Shakespeare’s original you have, the more you will enjoy Crouch’s play. Malvolio talks us through the tangled plot of Twelfth Night, whilst tearing it to shreds and reducing the audience to cackles of recognition. 

Crouch’s language is rich and intricate, combining direct quotations from Twelfth Night with Malvolio’s ranting diatribe against his fellow characters, his creator and most of all, us, his audience. Viewers will be smugly self-congratulatory after recognizing quotes and in-jokes from Shakespeare’s play, but this is rapidly turned on its head as Malvolio skews meanings and leads us to question the words the writer puts into his mouth. The mix between the centuries-old and sometimes over-quoted Shakespearean language and the utterly contemporary references allows Crouch’s Malvolio to be an anachronistic figure. He points out our many flaws from a seemingly detached stance, but he soon shows us that we are no different from the repulsive, beer-guzzling bully, Sir Toby Belch, who is to blame for Malvolio’s downfall.

The phrase ‘I am not mad’ runs at the core of the play, as compulsive repetition transforms the words into a mantra. The disheveled figure before us, clad in a stained one-piece and horned hat, twitches and seethes with barely-repressed rage, but despite his shaking hands and semi-hysterical raving, Malvolio gradually exposes himself to be a sane commentator on the lives of the audience he scrutinizes. The question of what constitutes madness runs parallel with the question of what should constitude comedy; our laughter at Malvolio’s apparent madness, and at the slapstick elements of the play, is shown to be shallow and ultimately destructive.

Crouch is a commanding presence, capturing Shakespeare’s creation whilst transforming him into something far greater and more complex. As we laugh at the ‘funnyman’, he forces us to pity him, and then just as quickly defies us, insisting that it is we who should be pitied. His Malvolio is unlikable and yet engaging, pathetic and then suddenly imperious, as when he commands a hapless audience member to tie his shoes for him… 

Which brings us to the costume. The directors and production team have created two costumes which, along with the act of the change between them, inhabit an integral role in the play, providing not just a lot of cheap laughs and gags, but also profound reflections of Malvolio’s sense of self. The holey onesie, with its flies, stains and glimpses of leopard G-string is tragically incongruous with Malvolio’s ranting insistence that everything be ordered, clean and under control. The difference between the ragged and insane costume and the impeccable steward’s outward signifies the depth to which Malvolio has fallen, and the way in which his outward appearance cannot account for any true reality. 

We, the audience, are accused and accosted directly throughout the play: sit up straight, unfold your arms, stop drinking your sherry. But the uproarious laughter that Malvolio’s accusations cause does not last when he begins to attack us more generally, simply for being present. We are forced to ask what we wish to by gain going to the theatre, and motives such as voyeurism and intellectual posturing are revealed in all their horrible truth. The audience is transformed from a unified mass into a powerless mob, judging each other for laughing in the wrong places and for playing a role in the enactment Malvolio’s humiliation. This is seen most clearly as he brings a noose on stage and summons an audience member on stage to pull the chair out from under him. I happened to be the audience member he selected on this particular night, and it was an indescribably uncomfortable experience. I stood, mutely holding his hand as he recited a poem and prepared to hang himself, not knowing whether to refuse to aid him and run or whether to follow his instructions. Obviously, he wasn’t really going to commit suicide, but the boundaries between reality and fiction, actor and audience was so blurred that the situation was one of both hilarity and utter tragedy. 

Crouch has presented us with a disturbing yet perfect creation. I feel that someone who arrives not already knowing and loving Twelfth Night would lose some of the uncanny sense I had of seeing something familiar and yet unfamiliar in I, Malvolio. This made me question whether perhaps to give the play four stars, but every audience member will undoubtedly have their entire perspective on the act of theatre-going irrevocably shifted, and if this doesn’t earn the play five stars, I don’t know what does.

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Bobby Henderson

at 11:52 on 23rd Nov 2011

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Would you protest at someone littering? Would you laugh at a mugging? Where are your boundaries? Tim Crouch’s solo performance in I, Malvolio will lead you on an emotive journey through the woes of modern society, in a modern twist of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Truly captivating, the work takes the whole audience, young or old, along a rollercoaster; from the highs of infectious laughter, quickly followed by sharp troughs of guilt and self-awareness.

Set in Malvolio’s gaol cell, Karl James has expertly directed what could easily have been a flop into a marvellous drama, which will have you bolt upright in your seat, not realising the cunning role reversal taking place, until it is too late. Crouch’s words: ‘Some are born mad, some achieve madness, and some have madness thrust upon them’, are a delightful departure from this theatre classic. We are warned, just as in the original, that Malvolio will have his revenge, but who really listens to a madman?

If you are a fan of clean stand-up comedy, and want to experience something that reveals something about yourself, then this is a must see!

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