#LOVEHURTS : I, Malvolio is purposed as an exploration of the eponymous character as seen in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or What you Will. Malvolio is the notoriously abused Puritan who becomes the object of fun for the entire court when he is convinced, through cruel trickery, that a woman he has admired loves him.
And oh, how they laugh. ‘They’ being some imagined audience which can side with the merciless pranksters because without historical context this is bullying. Contextualised, Malvolio is a symbol of repression and class struggle. Written and performed by Tim Crouch, I, Malvolio is more about the signifier than the character.
This story starts after the degradation of Malvolio and the subsequent breakdown, when he is confined as a lunatic. As he is eager to tell us, he is not mad. This goes straight to the paradox of the insane convinced they are sane as his rambling tirade takes in everything from social etiquette to bullying and mobile phones while dressed in a tattered and bleakly revealing costume. Yet, with his clothes stained and torn, his face dirty, and his reputation shattered, he is still proud. An aggressive intelligence interrogates the audience and accuses each of us of bullying and low standards. The intent is to illustrate Malvolio’s cognitive environment but it goes the way of insult comedy by an educated hobo.
It was wonderful to see Malvolio speak. When he was talking about class, comportment, and intelligence it was as if the character had left the confines of Shakespeare’s text and was holding court. Then the argument started to get lost in anachronism and flippant bigotry. The jokes about Australia and Australians, while funny and justified (AmIRight?), added something to Malvolio that I’m not convinced should be there. This isn’t just about chronological pedantry; Mavolio’s actions undermine his punctilious and obsequious bearing with sexual innuendo to complete strangers, good-natured racism, and knock-about buffoonery. I understand that it is a joke but it’s not a joke Malvolio would make. Perhaps this is a way to make the character relevant to today’s audiences but the general misanthropy does not translate to the highly mannered Puritan philosophy which Shakespeare was parodying.
The archetype of the rigid elitist that wants to correct behaviour and conserve values is different now. Back then, this figure would have been anathema to the liberal minded; A moral crusader with the power to enforce constraint. The audience would have wanted to see this figure crumble. Now, we are more comfortable with moral relativism since we can now celebrate and indulge any lifestyle choice. This means that the resentment that the character of Malvolio may once have represented is not as understandable. Crouch uses jests against Australia, mobile phone abuse, and generalisations to make the audience feel some kind of antipathy towards Malvolio. The problem with that is this performance is too personable. The performance takes on a feeling of improvised stand-up and Crouch is amazing. He is funny, smart, offensive, and fun to watch. A boy comes out of the audience to kick him, following the directions on the ‘kick me’ sign on his back. There is interaction with other audience members as he degrades himself as Malvolio and as an actor playing Malvolio (but never as Tim Crouch) and the audience members are taken back to the colosseum. The thesis is we want to see Malvolio suffer. But we don’t, he’s the grumpy man at the bus stop, he’s the drunkle, he has a great and winning personality and here it made me feel very sorry for the hapless Malvolio again.
Part of the performance was the spectacle of this cruelty, laughing at his many misfortunes and the blackout inducing speed at which Malvolio fell from statured grace, but after becoming attached to Malvolio/Crouch the torments that were being performed weren’t as enjoyable as they might have been. No, Mr. Crouch, I don’t really want to see you or Malvolio beaten and humiliated. When Malvolio asks, during one or another degradation, ‘is this what you like to see? Is this what you came to watch?’ I have to say no.
These invitations to scorn are annotated by Malvolio who points out the bullying and that each audience member is equally accountable. This was clear, if the audience was more responsive, as Malvolio/Crouch tried to get us to turn violently against him. It is hard to reconcile an invitation to enjoy the suffering with the awareness that the character thinks we are all bullies, at that moment we are the group that torments Malvolio unto madness.
The injustice from Twelfth Night continues here. It is plain he suffers; it is obvious people take pleasure in his suffering. Indeed, some call it comedy. But who is suffering? I, Malvlio is entertaining enough but it isn’t about the character. It isn’t about the relevance of Shakespeare or providing a way to approach the Bard since the themes being explored are mostly external to the original text. I couldn’t tell you anything about new Malvolio but I could tell you some good jokes about Australians.