On last year's Fringe, one show got under people's skins more than any other. The Author by Tim Crouch was an attempt to confront audiences with their complicity in choosing to watch plays about gruesome subjects. There was no set, just two banks of seats facing each other, the actors sitting with everyone else. Over the course of the performance, the mood switched from postmodern irony to something less pleasant. Many people loved it, but more than a few found it detestable.
What those who voiced their frustration could not have realised was Crouch's daughter, Eleanor, was one of the ushers. If someone had a bad opinion about her dad, she heard it. "Irate audience members would come out and lambast her father," says Crouch. "She was very disciplined and didn't say anything."
If there are walk-outs from I, Malvolio, his offering this year, it will not be because people are shocked by the content. They may raise an eyebrow at seeing the normally cool and conversational actor in full Shakespearean mode – booming voice, period garb and all – but they will not be offended. That's why it is a surprise to find that this one-man show about the pompous character from Twelfth Night is a companion piece to the earlier play.
"To some degree, I, Malvolio is a young person's version of The Author in that it is about how far one is prepared to take pleasure in somebody's cruelty to other people," he says when I meet him at the Latitude festival where he is previewing the show.
Just as The Author asked us whether it was acceptable to watch portrayals of violence, cruelty and sexual abuse from the comfort a seat in the stalls, so I, Malvolio asks us why we are ready to laugh at a character who is bullied, tricked and humiliated. Crouch takes Malvolio's side as he runs through the ins and outs of Shakespeare's comedy, in particular the story of the forged love letter that makes him dress up in ridiculous yellow stockings.
"The act of cruelty perpetrated by the audience on the performer is the same act of cruelty perpetrated by Sir Toby Belch on Malvolio," says Crouch, who takes to the stage in stained long johns and a cockscomb hat, a figure as pathetic as he is furious.
If you are familiar with the Shakespeare play, you'll be on a fast track to picking up on Crouch's themes, but he regards his one-man show as a stand-alone work that should require no prior knowledge. "Malvolio tells the story of Twelfth Night as an example of the lunacy of the world in which he exists," he says. "It is absurd: women dressing up as men for no reason, people marrying complete strangers . . . there is a whole raft of nonsense and if you place a Puritan in that chaos, there's a dramatic conflict. But I wouldn't want you to think that you have to know Twelfth Night to get something from this play or that it's only for people who have been pedagogically required to understand Twelfth Night."
It is not the first time Crouch has illuminated the world of Shakespeare by focusing on a minor character. His repertoire includes I, Caliban, I Peaseblossom and I, Banquo. Next year, he will perform I, Cinna (the Poet) alongside an RSC production of Julius Caesar. "There has been a nice feel to them in terms of unlocking the narrative of a play and defusing the difficulty of the language," he says. "I've taught Shakespeare in primary and secondary schools and if you don’t get past that, you don't unlock anything. So I feel very liberated when I approach these plays and I also feel duty-bound to tell the story which, in the case of I, Malvolio, is a hard one because the story of Twelfth Night is ludicrous and labyrinthine."
Usually when you talk to playwrights, they tell you how much their respect for Shakespeare has increased the more they have engaged with his work. Crouch, however, is a little more circumspect. After 400 years, he reckons we should be less hidebound by the example Shakespeare set. "I have a huge amount of devotion and respect for him," says this son of two English teachers. "But I also have a healthy challenge to him. There are other ways to think about character, narrative and form. The danger is that you deify him and his process becomes mysterious and unreachable. His process is not unreachable; it's outstandingly extraordinary for the depth of his perception and language, but I also know he wrote for a different time and we are not in that time. He was a working playwright and I have a huge respect for that."
Although created with school students in mind, I, Malvolio has cross-over appeal. In the theatre tent at Latitude, I see it play to an almost entirely adult audience with no sense of being out of place. On the contrary, it gets a rapturous reception. "Last year I did two late-night performances in Brighton, billed as adult performances," says Crouch, who played Malvolio for real in a 2001 production of Twelfth Night by New York's Franklin Stage Company. "Everyone assumed I would re-write it and up the adult nature of the show. All I did was change my leopard-print underpants to a leopard-print thong. There is no difference."
Over the past decade, his work for young people has run in parallel to adult work such as My Arm, An Oak Tree and England. Switching between the two has informed his keen sense of narrative and taught him what audiences of all ages are capable of. Should he need reassurance, he looks again to his family. "I have an 11-year-old boy who is happiest when he is being talked to as an adult and not being patronised," he says. "In the play, there's a big philosophical discussion around what you have allowed to happen to Malvolio and where you get your kicks from. That's as good an argument for an 11-year-old as it is for a grown-up."
I, Malvolio, Traverse, 17–28 August.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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