You might instinctively be turned off by the vestige of simple slapstick in theatre, which the images of Tim Crouch’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, marketed at young Shakespeare-syllabus-studying audiences indicate. Crouch's Malvolio is abject clown, wearing soiled underwear, ridiculous hat and exaggerated facial expression. But we are reminded that there is no such thing as simple comedy in I, Malvolio, in which Crouch achieves the incredibly skillful balance "somewhere between comedy and pain" - a line which he delivers before a seventeen-year-old boy from the audience kicks him in the rear.
In his dirty under garments, with a ‘kick me’ sign affixed to the back, Crouch enters the scarcely designed stage of the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, muttering complaints about his audience and the theatre’s obscuring sightlines, then launches into a draconian monologue about Christian values, frivolous, shallow, idle theatre goers and the sexual deviance of actors - it is Cromwell’s Britain, after all. The crux of the script is a retelling of the humiliating practical joke that is played on Malvolio in Twelfth Night, which leads him to mistakenly believe that his affections for his lady Olivia are returned and make him an amusing subplot to the love triangle between Viola, Olivia and the Duke Orsino. An object of ridicule, he lists a host of objects that have been pelted at him whilst on stage including spit, rotten produce and filthy panties: an act of self-flagellation which mirrors Crouch’s exercise with this performance. This one-man show is essentially a comedy set which he has staged in various theatrical spaces since 2014, to both positive and disparaging reviews. Feedback, which Crouch self reflexively integrates into his performance, jovially asking the audience whether or not something worked for them.
What we see in the Wanamaker Playhouse at the end of 2023 is Crouch at the top of his game, expertly adapting to the audience he encounters. This is a play that is aimed at young audiences, but Crouch naturally steps out of his script asking, ‘are there any adults here’ and adding that ‘judging by the audience far too many.’ He challenges a man for being late, ‘latey boy’, a bit which he carries on throughout the play getting the man up on stage at one point, as well as another who has been shrieking with laughter. What Crouch does is completely admonish the notion of a fourth wall and compel a mode of viewing that galvanises audiences to be involved in the performance, in talking to him, to each other. From the first moment Crouch enters the stage a contagious laughter starts to build which becomes self-generating. Comedy is no easy feat and towards the end of the piece a man falls out of his seat from laughter. Throughout, Malvolio’s threat has been that he will get his revenge, an object that Crouch tries out by abruptly disappearing from the stage without closing his performance, thus leavening his audience surprised but satisfied.
Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.