I, Malvolio

Tim Crouch in I, Malvolio. Credit: Bruce Dalzell Atherton
Tim Crouch in I, Malvolio. Credit: Bruce Dalzell Atherton

At The Cultch until February 10

Posted on February 5, 2013  

It’s about time somebody took the mickey out of Shakespeare: all those male actors pretending to be women pretending to be men. Were Elizabethan audiences all blind and stupid? And the ridiculous romances: strangers that meet in the morning, in love by noon and married by dinner? Good grief.

Writer/perform Tim Crouch tears strips off Shakespeare, the theatre and theatergoers through the eyes of Twelfth Night’s Malvolio, surely the most badly abused of all of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae. While Crouch does the dirty on the Bard, he actually tells the whole story in about an hour. And he does it hilariously, irreverently and without a pinch of pity for anyone – including us. When we last saw a performance of Twelfth Night, what were we doing, Crouch asks, when poor old Malvolio was tricked by that drunken lout Sir Toby Belch and his ridiculous cohort Sir Andrew Aguecheek? Shame on us for laughing at seeing a man so humiliated.

And now, here we are in the Cultch, laughing at Crouch being Malvolio.

We meet this Malvolio, a servant of Countess Olivia, after he has been released from prison where he was incarcerated as a lunatic. “I’m not mad, I’m not mad, I’m not mad”, cries Malvolio although you do have to wonder: he’s wearing torn and filthy longjohns with a yellow-stained crotch; the yellow gartered stockings that Belch and Aguecheek persuaded him to wear in order to woo Olivia; red turkey wattles; and a ridiculous horned cap. He certainly looks like a loony but swears, suddenly serious, “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you.” Yikes.

Commissioned by England’s Brighton Festival in 2003 to make “a one-off piece of theatre for young audiences inspired by a Shakespeare play”, Crouch has now written and performed – to international acclaim and not just for young audiences – The Tempest from Caliban’s perspective, A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Peaseblossom’s point of view, Macbeth as experienced by Banquo and now Twelfth Night through Malvolio’s eyes.

Writer/actor Crouch is brilliant in this solo performance and you will see Twelfth Night as never before. He calls it a kind of clown show and like all clown shows, I, Malvolio is full of insight into human frailty and folly. Poor Puritan Malvolio is a nitpicker and party pooper of the worst sort until he – as the butt of Belch’s cruel practical joke – thinks Countess Olivia loves him. “For the first time in my life,” he tells us, “I was happy.” Not mad but in love. Which might amount to the same thing.

And all the while Crouch rails at us. When we laugh at him being kicked in the butt by a volunteer from the audience, he snarls, “Is that the apotheosis of your enjoyment? One man kicking another man?” You are, he says, “slack-jawed” and “stinking rotten, smug and middle class, snoozing there in your winter clothes.”

Somehow – and here’s the magic – it’s all wonderfully funny. But every time his Malvolio says the words, “my Lady Olivia”, they are spoken with such longing and tenderness that it’s almost unbearably sad.

Crouch talks about “that sweet spot between comedy and pain” – a place so hard to find without tipping the balance. He finds it and stays there as carefully and precisely as a tightrope walker. One misstep and it’s farce; fall the other way, it’s melodrama.

After the PuSh Festival’s Testament, a director-about-town was heard to say it was the best King Lear she’d ever seen. I, Malvolio (another PuSh Festival presentation) is the best Twelfth Night I’ve seen – turkey wattles, filthy underwear and all. And through all the ranting against the play’s ridiculous plot shines Crouch’s deep and abiding love of Shakespeare. Funny, eh?