'I, Malvolio, is about cruelty, about how we like to laugh at people,' says theatre director Tim Crouch
A play that has created a buzz in the international theatre circles, I, Malvolio, premieres in Bengaluru tomorrow. It's a tale told through the perspective of Malvolio, a character from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Malvolio is tricked by his employer, a noblewoman Olivia, into believing that she is in love with him. Ultimately, he ends up in a mad house and his last line from the play, 'I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," is an iconic dialogue that is remembered by theatre lovers.
So the production, I, Malvolio, by British theatre artiste, Tim Crouch, looks at the world and its doings through the perspective of this betrayed man. But Tim is also someone who chooses such minor characters from Shakespearean plays and gives them an important role to play in the current world scenario.
In an exclusive chat with Indulge, he shares more about his experiments and Malvolio.
Tell us a little about your obsession with the minor characters from Shakespearean plays? What makes you put them in the spotlight?
It’s a very English thing to want to support the underdog. The powerful can look after themselves. They don’t need our help. I suppose that this is one of the reasons I wanted to look at the small characters in Shakespeare. The leading characters already have their play! Let’s focus on the little people.
I was an actor for many years and sometimes played small parts in plays. If you have a small role, you still have to do the work - to understand your character's life and their relationship with the whole play. But you feel that you never get to say what you want to say! You never get to tell your story! I would often fantasise about having an opportunity to speak. I played the Soothsayer in Julius Caesar - when I had left drama school. I could have made a solo piece called I, Soothsayer! His role in the play is extraordinary - but we know nothing about him. I remember wanting to explore his experience and give him his own show.
In the 1990s I was in a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Stoppard does the same kind of thing in this play - but very differently. He focuses on two minor characters and makes their experience central.
We are often subjected to the ‘great man’ theory of history. The idea that history is explained through the impact of ‘great men’ - leaders, rulers, kings, heroes. It’s possible to look at Shakespeare’s plays like this. To focus on the great characters - Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, etc. I think it’s good to understand that history is made by the ‘small people’, the minor characters. It feels like a democratic statement. A radical statement.
Tell us about I, Malvolio... how did this production happen? Why did you want to narrate his tale?
I played Malvolio in a production of Twelfth Night in New York back in 2001. His is one of the great unfinished stories. His last line in Shakespeare's play is: 'I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you.' But then you never find out what his revenge might be. In my play I explore what it could be. He's treated very badly in Twelfth Night and yet we all laugh at him. He's a carrier for lots of themes - from cruelty to bigotry, from repression to release. He's not in the play that much, but he is perhaps the most memorable presence in it. He is both a tragic hero and a clown.
When I performed in Twelfth Night I always wondered what Malvolio would do at the end of the play. In I, Malvolio I show one possibility and I give him his revenge!
I'm also interested in him because he's someone who hates theatre and he's stuck inside a play. This connects with my theatrical obsessions - to have someone on stage who challenges the whole point and purpose of the audience's presence. He forces you to think about why you are there, what you expect in a place like this.
With all the characters I choose, I have to have an emotional connection to them. I think Malvolio is the character I feel most for. I love him. And I also hate him.
Since the first performance in 2010, how has the production evolved? Have alluded some ideas/discussions in the play to current affairs and world politics?
This play is about cruelty. About the pleasure some people get from seeing someone suffer. The practical joke and its victim. This feels like a very modern theme. We laugh at people because we feel superior. The world is very divided at the moment - between the bullies and their victims. I, Malvolio talks about this in the action of the play - in the relationship between the audience and the actor.
Is this your first performance in India? How have you made the script more relatable to an Indian audience?
First time in India ever! I performed the play in Mumbai last week. I don’t significantly change the play. But the play changes every time! I work with the audience - and they change it for me. They change its meaning. In India, for example, Malvolio feels very strongly like a colonial character. An Englishman from the Raj… He attempts to control the audience but the audience get the better of him. There is a moment in the play where the audience is invited to kick Malvolio. It’s a very funny moment. At this moment at a performance last week, an audience member shouted out, ‘Kick the Englishman!’ This made me very happy. It felt like the play is giving an Indian audience a chance to get back at British rule!
Also - Malvolio is a disciplinarian. A Puritan. A church-going Protestant. He is very strict. He hates mess and litter and spitting and chewing and noise and chaos and bright colours... All the things that are a bit Indian…! So there is a great interplay between two positions. In I, Malvolio I cast the audience as Toby Belch from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. So the two characters meet and play together.
I am very happy to be in India with this play. I have always thought it would work well with an Indian audience.
My trip to India has been made possible by the support of the British Council and QTP. 2018 marks the the 70th anniversary of the British Council in India. British Council has been inspired by India every day of the last 70 years and wants to build on the connections and impact of arts, share the stories we’ve made together, and inspire millions of young people for the next 70 years.
Could you throw some light on the stage movements and anything unusual that you have incorporated in your performance?
Every show is different because the audience is different. At Prithvi House in Juhu, I was performing in a low, long, narrow room. The audience went back a long way and those at the back had a poor view. I made the decision, as the audience were coming in, to play as much of the show as possible, standing on a chair! This meant that the people at the back could see me. I enlisted the audience at the front to help me - to narrate things I was doing, to hand things up to me. The show was a joy, very live and very different to what I normally do. But what I normally do is respond to the moment. With my work, the audience know that what they are seeing is slightly different every time.
What do you want audience to take away from it?
I don’t want my plays to be lessons. There is nothing worse than theatre that tries to teach its audience. But I, Malvolio is full of questions. It presents a man in crisis. A man who has been ridiculed and tricked and hated. A man at the end of his will to live. He is a tragic figure. He tries to kill himself. But also he is a clown. I want you to laugh at him, to kick him, to punish him. And then I want to ask questions about where that laughter comes from. Theatre gives us a chance to explore a situation - an extreme situation - but to do it safely. The story of Malvolio is a good story. And, like all good stories, it is a story about ourselves.
Rs 250. November 25, Ranga Shankara, JP Nagar, 3.30 and 7.30 pm