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grin

I, Malvolio

The New Wolsey Theatre auditorium had been constricted with black cloths. Raked seating filled back stage and in this small draped space we looked down on the apron in a reversal of our usual positions. Upstage right stood a man in a stained onsie; it seemed to have been soaked in blood at the top and in urine at the middle. On his feet were grotseque yellow stockings and cross garters, on his head a horned cap, and under his chin the wattle of a turkey. It is Malvolio from Scene IV of Twelfth Night. He has been imprisoned in a dark room by tormenters who pretend he is insane. None of this is made explicit and it is not necessary to know Twelfth Night to enjoy the show but the context adds another layer to our appreciation.

There are four characters on stage in this one absurd figure. There is the man Malvolio, created by Shakespeare. There is the actor playing Malvolio in a performance of Twelfth Night. There is Tim Crouch, the writer, and there is Tim Crouch as himself in the present. They offer at least five layers of understanding. There is the text of Shakespeare's play. There is Malvolio's view of Illyria, the world of Twelfth Night.  There is Malvolio's view of us, the audience and the modern world that we inhabit. There is a commentary on Shakespeare's play. There is the process of performance. All this complexity is hurled at the audience with a blunt immediacy that makes it accessible but uncomfortable.

Before we are even seated we are unsettled by the curious gaze of Malvolio as he puzzles over a letter and then stares at our arrival. The costume is absurd but repellant. His gaze is an intrusion. He is not connecting with us. He is examining us. Might he be judging us? Is this supposed to be funny? "Not mad", he tells himself several times. This is an assertion he makes several times in the original play and there it is true but here we cannot be sure. His manner and dress are not those of a stable man. Abruptly, he steps towards the audience and launches into a tirade of invective railing against our manners and our morals. "Do you find this kind of thing funny?" he demands as he singles out individals for personal criticism. With the fourth wall in shards at his feet he appears to return to the script, reprising the first lines sotto voce. Malvolio, the puritan, hates the theatre and disdains the audience; disdains us. He derides the cruelty of our mocking laughter then offers us increasingly ferocious slapstick to expose the visciousness of our humour.

This is a tour de force of subversive theatre. Not only does it upend our expectations and provoke long reflection, it delivers a masterclass in characterisation, narrative, comedy, and audience engagement. By the end of the hour we understand more about Twelfth Night, more about Malvolio, more about theatre, and more about ourselves.

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grin

September 2015

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