MALVOLIO from Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s great tragicomic characters, a stuffy prude who gets his comeuppance as the butt of practical jokes which eventually tip over into cruelty.
Writer and performer Tim Crouch has now allowed the character to get his own back with a one-man show, I, Malvolio, which re-imagines Twelfth Night from the point of view of this “notoriously wronged” man.
Was he driven by the need to put the record straight on a character who has been misjudged?
“Not really,” he responds. “Malvolio is the fourth in a series I have done which started with Caliban from The Tempest in 2003 and was followed by Peaseblossom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Banquo from Macbeth. I have just finished the first draft for the RSC of a fifth, Cinna the poet from Julius Caesar.
“I, Malvolio was commissioned for festivals in Brighton and Singapore and intended for a young audience of 11 upwards but has been hijacked by grown-ups. We took it to the Edinburgh Festival last summer and sold out - but we didn’t have any young people come to it.”
Crouch says I, Malvolio explores issues raised in a previous play he wrote for adults, The Audience. “It explored the audience’s pleasure in cruelty and how much you enjoy seeing someone suffer.
“Malvolio endures humiliating treatment much to the delight of Toby Belch and his cronies - and the audience - and we ask how much the audience is prepared to go along with that.”
It was, however, conceived as an introduction to Shakespeare for young audiences. “You will get the story of Twelfth Night,” he says. “You don’t have to know the play already and in fact you don’t have to know any Shakespeare play to enjoy it.
“I am committed to the Shakespeare mother ship but I don’t want to write a piece that sits in his shadow but stands on its own. It comes very much from a love of Shakespeare language and merges and melds with contemporary language.
“I do not pretend to be from the 17th century, I am a contemporary performer. I personally think that every Shakespeare performance should be connected to the modern world.”
It is not a revisionist portrait of the character. “Malvolio was a puritan, a popinjay and an ass,” he says. “I merge Shakespeare’s text and my own words and tell Malvolio’s own story.
There was a very clear sense of a story that’s unfinished. Malvolio’s final words are ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ and in Hollywood terms that’s setting up a sequel
“I take liberties with it but I think Shakespeare would have approved because he himself took a lot of liberties with other people’s writing. there’s a sacred aura around Shakespeare and yet he was the biggest thief of them all. Most of his great works are taken from others.”
Crouch did play Malvolio in a production in New York in 2001 but doesn’t feel it has much relevance to his creation. “I had never played Caliban or Banquo - and I won’t be performing Cinna. The actor who is playing the part in the RSC’s production of Julius Caesar will.
“Later this year I will be handing over Malvolio to another actor. I am directing a production of King Lear for the RSC - an abridged version for young adults cut down by two-thirds with a cast of nine - and Malvolio is going to run at the Unicorn in London. I can’t be in two places at once. Malvolio is a big juicy part and I don’t want to hit anything on the head but there’s nothing for it.”
Crouch performs, writes and directs - does he afford priority to any of those roles? “I would call myself a theatre maker,” he says.
“I do all of those things and I still love performing, though I haven’t been directed by someone else since 2004. I’m not ruling it out but I have other work until the end of this year.”
lI, Malvolio is at the Crucible Studio from Thursday, January 19, to Saturday.