Malvolio, a fictional character no less, has made me feel genuine remorse. That’s curious. It’s like grieving for Bambi’s mother or falling in love with Superman. It’s one thing to have an emotion stirred by a story – to feel sad about something, say, or elated by it – but these are passive attitudes, not active emotions. To sow the latter from a fiction, as Tim Crouch does in I Malvolio, takes extraordinary skill.
Six days earlier, I had stood in the Globe’s groundling pit and laughed as Stephen Fry’s Stephen-Fryish Malvolio was tripped into humiliation by Toby Belch, Maria and co in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. I – we – spurred them on in their forgery, eagerly anticipating his smiling appearance in cross-gartered yellow stockings, until he was caged below the stage, protesting of being ‘most notoriously abused’. Pah. Stuff and nonsense, you bumptious prig. Get over yourself.
It takes a killer Malvolio to really land that final cry of revenge. Fry doesn’t. He merely blusters off muttering. I’ve only seen one actor really manage it: Simon Russell Beale in Sam Mendes’ curtain call at the Donmar Warehouse. Russell Beale waded on slowly, as if sodden and pneumonic, faced the entire company and hacked up a sour, gritty snarl: ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.’ It was quiet but deadly serious – totally composed – and his appearance punctured the play’s jollity like a burst beachball.
Crouch achieves exactly the same and more. Did Russell Beale turn to face us with his final line? I can’t entirely remember. Crouch certainly does. He includes us in the confederacy against him, so that our laughter is as reproachable as the actual perpetration.
Like Russell Beale, Crouch allows Malvolio to regain his wits and composure. In fact, he pretty much plays the whole thing in reverse, like a road safety advert in which dead bodies fly back through an unbreaking windscreen. He starts demonstrably mad, in spite of his clucked protests otherwise, wearing a piss-stained full-body stocking, horns and a sign that reads ‘Turkey Cock’. Flies on wires hover about his head, ridiculously. Gradually, he gets himself dressed, applying make-up, heaving himself into a male corset and suiting himself up in puritan black.
The more he talks, the more rational he seems. If madness is simply being out of step with the majority, then, yes, Malvolio is mad. But what if it is the majority that are themselves mad? This is how Crouch positions Malvolio; a man stood alone at the top of a slippery slope down which everyone has tumbled.
He retells the original plot, lingering on details that are easily glossed over or over-familiar and so taken for granted, to show us the play’s world as it seems to Malvolio. After the death of his master and, then his master’s son and heir, order in Ilyria starts to disintegrate. Olivia goes into mourning, refusing the company of men, and yet she invites – no, implores – this ‘young boy-man-boy’ Cesario to return time and again. Meanwhile, her wayward uncle Toby is running riot downstairs, abusing the wine cellar and ‘trampling my lady’s grief’. Orsino won’t take no for an answer. Cesario turns out to be a woman and her brother Sebastian marries Olivia in an instant, despite the bizarre instantaneity of her advances. Masters, have you forgot yourselves, indeed?
Crouch’s Malvolio doesn’t ask much, merely that standards be maintained; that litter be picked up, food be put back in the fridge and a little common decency be shown. Also that theatres be shut down, drunkenness be scorned and god be praised. Oh. Hang about. Just as you’re starting to see him as a priggish irritant that nonetheless deserves toleration not humiliation, this Malvolio swells into a snobbish intolerance of his own. One has sympathy for the man at his lowest, but as he revives and restores his original appearance, that sympathy all but dries up. He barks at audience members: do this, do that. Never a nice please or thank you. The superiority that sneaks up on you is repulsive and forces you to re-evaluate your instinctive sympathy.
It takes a maker who knows their craft inside-out to confront an audience thus, and Crouch lands his punches with precision and force. I Malvolio is far, far more than a fiction. It’s an ethical and aesthetical treatise. With jokes.