I saw Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree at the 2008 Melbourne Festival. It assured me that I’d see anything he created and I Malvolio has confirmed my commitment.
Crouch is from Brighton in the UK and he makes theatre that embraces and confronts the assumptions that audiences and performers take into a theatre.
This is the fourth work he’s created in which he re-tells a Shakespeare story from the perspective of one character. I, Peaseblossom, I, Caliban and I, Banquo were part of a project for children and young people to discover Shakespeare in different and accessible ways. Although certainly welcoming for young audiences, I, Malvolio was devised for everyone and its 2014 Sydney and Brisbane seasons sold out.
Malvolio is the duped pompous servant in Twelfth Night who’s easy to laugh at, in his yellow cross-gartered stockings, and easy to forget, when everyone else dances off to a happy-ever-after.
By unpacking the story as Malvolio sees it, Crouch invites us to see the clown as a man who glimpsed the one hope of love in his sad life and had it viciously ripped away. This re-telling alone is fascinating – almost like looking at the backstory preparation of an obsessive method actor – but it’s not the brilliance of the work.
This Malvolio, who begins the show in fly-ridden underwear after the humiliating jest has been discovered, drops the convention that a performer is a character. As the friendly performer who loves his audience and the contemptuous character who wishes ill to all who watch him, he talks with the audience and makes even the reluctant a willing part of the story. He encourages humiliating laughter, dares anyone to trick him and, literally, invites a kick in the arse, but turns it all back on those by asking why we did it.
Why do we laugh at the duped, the ugly and the stupid? While Crouch is far from any of these, as the house lights never dim to the safely of darkness, each show becomes a one-off conversation about the strange cruelty of theatre audiences who are willing and eager to watch people suffer.
The good-looking and wealthy people in Twelfth Night are horrible to Malvolio, but they are the ones cheered for. Shakespeare knew why. So does Crouch. And we know we’ll keep on cheering and laughing.
I, Malvolio is on at Arts Centre Melbourne until Sunday. Be warned that you might want to see it again.