I, Malvolio programme
Written and performed by Tim Crouch
Designed by Graeme Gilmour
Costumes by Lucy Bradridge and Emma Wreyford
Endless support by Karl James and Andy Smith
Commissioned by Brighton Festival with Singapore Arts Festival and Battersea Arts Centre
Thanks to: Michelle Terry, Sharni Lockwood, Rosie Howell, Guy Goodbody on the candles and all at Shakespeare’s Globe.
A note from Tim Crouch
I, Malvolio was commissioned by Brighton Festival in 2010. It opened in front of eleven-year-olds in a secondary school hall in Brighton. My conception was that Malvolio would be like a disciplinarian teacher trying to wrangle a school group who didn’t want to be there. The children would be like Toby Belch, I imagined and, if they weren’t, I would make them so. I would then be like Malvolio in opposition to their Toby Belch.
These seven Sam Wanamaker Playhouse performances are numbers 266 – 273 of a show that has given me some of my most intense and pleasurable performance experiences. Here are some moments and threads that have stuck from the last 13 years.
Battersea Arts Centre in 2010 was the site of my first proper kicking. A young boy didn’t know the meaning of feint and really went for it. An audible response from his classmates who all knew that one of their own had transgressed the game. A sense of shock and, I think, a sort of collective guilt. Malvolio’s retort of ‘Find that funny?’ has never landed harder. I thanked the boy afterwards. The idea behind the action, I told him, had never been stronger. There have been a few hard kicks over the years. An American student in Korea in 2016 sticks in my memory; a boy in Stratford-upon-Avon (2011) who left a vivid bruise. Gradually I’ve revised the instructions I give to try to prevent injury – ‘use the side of the foot, not the toe… the sweet spot between comedy and pain’, etc. At a performance at Salisbury Playhouse in 2012, no one in the audience was under 50. The kicking was a very gentle, coaxed affair ensuring that no one’s hip snapped. In Chennai in 2017 a polite boy refused to kick me. The stand-off was endless and delirious. There has to be a kicking. The audience knew it and urged their representative on. When it came, the room erupted.
The venue at the Prithvi House in Bandra was low and long. The stage was on floor level. As the audience came in, we weighed up performing as much of the show as possible standing on a single chair – for the sight lines at the back. People handed things up to me – the letter, the noose, clothing. When I had to go down to put on my stockings and shoes – and for the kicking – we got people in the front to narrate what was going on to the people at the back. Together we built a stage on a chair and, with it, a community – working together on a shared problem – and we all played. The people at the back got the best view.
The curtain call
I’ve never taken a curtain call for I, Malvolio – except once. At the Meyerhold Centre in Moscow (in 2011), I exacted my revenge and left the stage. I started getting changed. I could hear that the audience had started a rhythmical clapping. I ignored it. I washed my face, I changed my clothes. The clapping continued. Then the dressing room door burst open and the director of the theatre said, ‘You can’t do this. Not in Russia. It’s not allowed.’ He effectively dragged me onto the stage to take a bow. This is not how Malvolio’s revenge works.
Latitude Festival, July 2011
Outdoors in a wood. The first time I had to wear a radio mic. After much discussion, the mic pack was attached by a clip to the waistband of my leopard-print thong. Unknown to me, the weight of the pack had pulled the thong slightly to one side, revealing one of my precious plums. In the show I removed my costume and the offending article gleamed like a jewel. I wondered why the audience were laughing so strangely. This was an audience who included my children, other people’s children, the nervously disposed, the drunk. Eventually I sensed what the problem was and popped things back in. ‘Find that funny, do you? The kind of thing you find funny?’ Yes. Obviously.
The back of a lorry, 2021
There have been a few outdoor performances in addition to Latitude. Burned in my memory is the Valley School outside Bangalore with bats swooping over my head and the sound of monkeys in the nearby jungle. In 2021, ETT organised a lock-down-busting festival on a trailer on the back of a lorry. The festival played in Leazes Park, Newcastle, and outside the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. These performances coincided with two of the wettest summer weeks. In Keswick, I would stand on a puddled dance floor, in front of a huddle of cold cagoules and watch the curtains of rain approach from over Catbells in the distance. At one performance my microphone died and I shouted the remainder of the show. Only once did the stage manager step forward and pass their finger over their throat. There was a danger of electrocution.
I, Malvolio was written as a sort of young person’s version of my extremely grown-up play The Author (2009). Both question the pleasure we take in other people’s pain. Like The Author, there’s no curtain call in I, Malvolio. Like The Author, I, Malvolio goes to extremes. But unlike The Author, I, Malvolio is super-clear in its sign-posting; in its presentation of character and distance and style. It holds the audience’s hand. Malvolio is a grotesque clown who attempts a grotesque clown hanging. Our culture has changed profoundly in the 13 years since the show opened and I’m aware that this sequence sails close to the wind of our modern sensitivities. Each time it becomes a brokered lesson – an open space to negotiate meaning and action and consequence and responsibility. There have been many times with school groups where anxious teachers have urged their pupils not to get involved, to think about what they’re committing to. At times, volunteers have refused to take part. The audience who, perhaps, see better what is being explored will always throw up a new participant for the lesson to continue. The play needs its audience to be in role as Toby Belch, as blood-thirsty, unethical, ill-disciplined. Only in the to and fro of that relationship with ourselves will the lesson land.
My hope with this play is to hand authority over to the audience. I need them to be the antagonist to Malvolio’s protagonist. At one performance in Malta in 2015, the audience was composed in its entirety of a posh girls’ school with smart girls in blazers. My heart sunk a little. A well-behaved audience is kryptonite to Malvolio and I work hard to light little fires of rebellion. Things went well in Valetta. Malvolio left at the end and I listened in my dressing room as something was clearly happening in the theatre. It took a few minutes for me to get changed and the noise only increased. I made my way back to the stage and it had been hijacked. A girl sat on my chair with my turkey-cock-devil hat on. Another girl was conducting the other girls with my shoe horn. Everyone was in hysterics. They had taken over. In New York I had the experience of listening to a group of school children waiting for Malvolio’s return as I got changed. Chatter would start and then they would hush each other. I was doing a post-show chat after that performance and so had the out-of-body experience of walking onto the stage as myself in front of an audience who were waiting for me as my character. I remember the young audience’s eyes re-focusing as they worked out who the hell this man on stage was.
Originally Brighton Festival asked for two versions of I, Malvolio: one for schools and another for adults. My response was to buy some leopard print trunks for the young audiences and a leopard print thong for the adult shows. Very quickly we understood that the thong was funnier for everyone. In New York I was asked to do a private performance for the board of directors to determine if the thong was suitable. They determined that it was. (I remember one boy from a school in Queens crying out ‘I’ve gone blind’ when Malvolio stripped down and clambering back over the seats to get away from me. Beautiful anarchy/furious Malvolio.) Only in China has the thong been banned. I received a letter from the district authority of Nanjing requesting that I cover myself up and so the old leopard print trunks were brought out of retirement. The show has done two tours of China in 2014 and 2016 and they’ve been my greatest mystery and joy. China took the memo about young audiences to heart. Children as young as five squealing with pleasure at the angry clown-man fulminating at them. The show was translated and sur-titled but few followed the words. It was the energy that spoke. A five year old girl, clearly unable to tie shoe laces, enlisting her mother to help her with Malvolio’s shoes. Helpless with laughter. A young girl – clearly too short to help me on with my jacket – standing on a chair. Below are some photos of Malvolio in China.
Tim is an Obie award-winning playwright, director and theatre-maker. He was an actor before starting to write and he still performs in much of his work. Plays include Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel (Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh/tour), Superglue (National Theatre Connections), Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation (National Theatre of Scotland, Royal Court/tour), I, Cinna (the poet) (Royal Shakespeare Company and Unicorn Theatre, London), Beginners (Unicorn Theatre, London), Adler & Gibb (Royal Court, Center Theatre Group, LA/tour), what happens to the hope at the end of the evening (Almeida Festival/tour), The Author (Royal Court/tour), An Oak Tree (Traverse Theatre, National Theatre, Off-Broadway/tour), I, Malvolio, I, Peaseblossom, I, Caliban, and I, Banquo (Brighton Festival/tour), ENGLAND – a play for galleries (Traverse Theatre/The Fruitmarket Gallery/tour) Shopping for Shoes (National Theatre schools tour) and My Arm (Traverse Theatre/tour).
As a director: House Mother Normal (New Perspectives/Brighton Festival), Peat (Ark, Dublin), Jeramee, Hartleby and Oooglemore (Unicorn Theatre, London), The Complete Deaths (Spymonkey/Brighton Festival), The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear (Royal Shakespeare Company).
Tim created and co-wrote Don’t Forget the Driver, a six-part series for BBC2, which won Best TV Comedy at the Venice TV awards, 2019. In 2023 he adapted – with Toby Jones – Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller for BBC Radio 4.
Other awards include: Scotsman Fringe First (Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel); Offie (I, Cinna (the poet)); Writers Guild of Great Britain, Best Play for Young Audiences (Beginners); John Whiting Award, Total Theatre Award (The Author); Scotsman Fringe First, Total Theatre & Herald Archangel Awards (ENGLAND); Obie, Herald Angel (An Oak Tree); Prix Italia for Best Adaptation in Radio Drama (My Arm).
Tim is published by Methuen Books.
Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel plays at Brighton Dome’s Studio Theatre, January 31 – February 3rd 2024. Details here.
I, Malvolio next appears in Peru in June 2024.
Details eventually at