Catching Up: I, Malvolio

The Edinburgh Fringe is over for another year, and once again there was a Shakespeare-related one-man show I wish I’d seen. In 2010 it was Simon Callow’s The Man from Stratford, written by Jonathan Bate (I expressed skepticism about it here, but I would have liked to have seen it for myself). This year it was Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, which sounds absolutely fascinating from his description in an article in the Guardian last month. Although, as Crouch explains, the performance is one of a series intended for children, it’s not surprising that it developed an adult following at the Fringe.

What I love about Crouch’s article is how his engagement with Shakespeare as a way of engaging with other people, his audience, shines through. If you want a counterweight to the ignorance I criticized in my post on The Tyee, you could hardly do better. For example:

The introduction of Shakespeare to young people is often advocated out of a sense of reactionary paranoia about a slipping of standards or an eroding of national identity: Shakespeare as warm beer or red phone boxes. These protective responses rarely extend in any detail to the task of how we keep Shakespeare alive for audiences. They talk of form, but not of the life inside that form. They talk of a masochistic drive to do things “properly”, to keep the language un-doctored, the codes encrypted.

Shakespeare deserves more respect than this. His influence is contemporary in many aspects of our western world – a world also inhabited by young people. If we ignore Shakespeare in performance, then we lose connections to full-bodied human archetypes, narratives and questions that are rooted in where we come from and which are urgent to how we live today.

Generalize these remarks to all audiences (delete the references to youth and replace the British red phone box with the universal blue police box), and you have a statement I could very well adopt as the manifesto of this blog. I also like his characterization of Malvolio as “the self-deluded authoritarian prude, the victim of his own unbending and the cruelty of his audience, the theatre-hating zealot bullied not least by dint of his being stuck on a stage”very much. This beautifully expresses the doubleness that’s characteristic of Shakespeare, perhaps nowhere more so than with Malvolio—and Jaques. (That is why our traversal of the plays ends with Twelfth Night and As You Like It).

But I think I like best of all his statement of the “philosophies common to all my theatre work” that I believe, as he hopes, Shakespeare could well have espoused: “Tell a story to the room. Trust language. Respect the audience’s ability to effect transformation. Make thinking enjoyable. Don’t be afraid of difficulty. Play seriously and, seriously, play.” I’d say that at the very least if we keep these exhortations in mind as we read Shakespeare, we’ll never go very far wrong. Especially the last.




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