Despite there being three preceding examples of Tim Crouch doing first-person narrations of Shakespeare stories for children (I, Caliban; I, Peaseblossom; and I, Banquo - all of which I’ve cleverly managed not to see), I, Malvolio somehow sounded like an odd proposition when considering Crouch’s work for “grown-ups”. Then there’s the fact of him “playing” Malvolio. It’s hard to imagine anyone less Malvolio-like than the infinitely sweet-natured Crouch. Indeed, it’s now difficult, despite Crouch’s erstwhile career as a “proper actor”, to imagine him “doing acting”, as what he’s written and performed (My Arm, An Oak Tree, England, The Author) since has been intricately concerned with the very nature of performance, the performer’s relationship to the audience, how meaning is constructed on stages, and so on. So the idea that he’s about to “play a character” (although, of course, that’s sort of what he does in the other pieces too) seems like a step backwards.
Turns out there was no need to worry.
I, Malvolio is incredibly funny, utterly heart-breaking, deeply sophisticated, beguilingly simple, hugely compassionate, completely uncompromising and incredibly intricate. All at the same time.
The set-up is simple. We enter one of the upstairs rooms in the BAC, and Crouch is standing at the other end dressing in a ridiculous costume of stained, one-piece kind of romper suit, red turkey wattle attached to his neck and a pair of horns on his head, trying to retain some level of dignity. Which is pretty much impossible given the costume.
This immediately sets up a brilliantly giggly atmosphere. It’s often observed that one secret of comedy (so, not much of a secret, then) is putting characters who try to appear dignified in undignified situations. This is an object lesson in how this succeeds, almost without effort. Wearing this costume, all Crouch has to do to have the entire room in helpless hysterics is to ask us not to laugh, to try to maintain some sort of dignity, to look hurt by our laughing at him.
“I am not mad” he tells us. Seriously. It is very funny, despite the tone of deep hurt.
This first room revolves mostly on this theme (the piece is in promenade and takes us through three rooms). Crouch/Malvolio talks to us, insults us and pleads for himself. He is not mad; we are insensitive brutes. He is just trying to keep things in order; we are litterers, drinkers, revellers and louts.
Perhaps the funniest line of insult is his repeated satirising of the audience. “This is you” he says (oddly reminiscent of the History Today sketches from the Mary Whitehouse Experience), trotting out accusations which range from the neatly observed (accusing us of taking “Meow Meow” - "aha, the laughter of recognition" he drily observes) to the cleverly acute: stuff about laughing at the “funny man” until he cries.
And this gets us to the real core of the piece. I, Malvolio deals with a lot of complex, conflicting elements. We’ve got Malvolio’s character: Crouch gives him a fair hearing; much fairer than Shakespeare, in fact. Listening Malvolio just recount in simple language the events that befall him through Twelfth Night (with a bit of back-story) from his own perspective is appallingly sad. But at the same time, Crouch doesn’t try to whitewash the difficulty of Malvolio’s Puritanism. You can discern a certain amount of understanding for his position, but the character still goes too far to be fully sympathetic. You do get to imagine how Malvolio might have been backed into the extremity of his position through a combination of simple opposition combined with, well, unrequited desire – a slightly less brutal version of Richard III’s “if I cannot prove a lover, then I am determined to prove a villain” – though.
While all this is going on with Malvolio, there’s also the game that’s being played with the audience. As our sympathies for him slide this way and that, we are also forced to look at ourselves as an audience. Because Malvolio remains utterly, hilariously ridiculous, and keeps making us laugh – theoretically against his will – we are forced to question the ethics of our laughter. Are we just bullies? Is it nice or kind to laugh at someone in distress like this? His distress only gets funnier as we contemplate this. In the second room he’s toying with a noose which he throws over a beam and gets two volunteers to hold, while a third is recruited to kick his chair from under him, for example. It creates a genuine frisson, even while feeling nominally “safe”.
In many ways this insightful, touching, funny piece of children’s theatre is a natural follow-on from The Author. It’s more direct – dealing with actual, personal responses to something immediate rather than questions of a wider more generalised acceptance of a particular theatrical genre, but it does still boil down to questioning what we’re doing when we’re watching something on stage. Like The Author, it asks us “is this alright?” “Are you ok with this?”
So, yes, in an hour Crouch manages to tell the whole story of Twelfth Night, surprisingly rehabilitates one of Shakespeare’s most one-dimensional straw targets and forces his audience to have a good hard think about their ethical responses to comedy at the same time as making them laugh a good deal more than most theatre ever will.
This is a brilliant, brilliant little piece and it’s beyond criminal that it isn’t already booked for an enormous tour to schools and theatres up and down the country already.