I, Malvolio, Traverse, Edinburgh
Tuesday 23 August 2011
Tim Crouch's last Edinburgh show, The Author, divided audiences with its meta-theatrical experiments, forcing us to question what responsibilities we have as spectators.
This year, the mantle has been taken up by theatrical provocateurs Ontroerend Goed and their unsettling play Audience, while Crouch appears to have opted for a safer option. He's written and performs a one-man show as Malvolio, the puritan party-pooper from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night who becomes a victim of a cruel practical joke and is locked up for being “mad”.
Which is not to say that Crouch has ditched his trademark self-aware approach; the house lights remain up, he talks to the audience, casting us as an immoral rabble along with Sir Toby Belch and his gang of tricksters. Throughout, in the face of his obvious humiliation (he's in a grubby onesie with a sign saying 'turkey cock' on his back) he asks us ,“This is the kind of thing you like, is it? This is the kind of thing you find funny?” Actually, the show is very funny - playful and not overly respectful of its source material; Malvolio's increasing incredulity, as he relates the admittedly wildly unlikely plot of Twelfth Night, that he is the one considered mad is nicely drawn. It's written in colloquial contemporary speech, although maybe a fifth of the script is made up of lifted, often recontextualised, lines belonging to various characters in Twelfth Night.
But Crouch also picks up – as any good production of Twelfth Night will – on the injustice in Malvolio's story. He is the sting in the play's tale, the darkness in its neatly tied-up happy ending. Malvolio earns our sympathy as a man whose mistake was, just for once, to believe he could be happy. It's not a complete rehabilitation however – this Malvolio is still, like Shakespeare's, a pompous ass and a killjoy. Crouch gives him the rope to hang himself (almost literally) by also bringing out a puritan desire to close the theatres, allowing much meta fun but also stretching that sympathy. The play gives Malvolio a voice; but the knowledge he would “be revenged” by silencing the voices of others keeps our attitude towards him ambivalent, and means the story never slips over into saccharine character rescue.
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