Don’t old dogs deserve better?

I Malvolio (Tim Crouch)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

September 17 – 20

In Tom Stoppardesque style, Tim Crouch’s “I, Malvolio” reimagines Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” through the eyes of its misunderstood, ‘notoriously abused,’ mad, minor character clown who has been tricked into believing his noblewoman employer is in love with him.

“I, Malvolio” is both delightful and difficult to watch. From its outset, the show subverts typical theatre expectations, with house lights up to allow Crouch to heckle audience members. What follows is an unsettling rant in which people are singled out and berated for, amongst other things, being too busy for church or prayer in favour of a little bit of drama, ‘watching the sexual deviants parading up and down, pretending to be other people … in a heaving mass of profanity and idolatry.’

Crouch’s ambition to break down the ‘fourth wall fantasy invented to contain the art form,’ is taken to audience participation extremes, including having one young man kick him in the backside. Indeed, when Malvolio’s character is driven to the brink of suicide by hanging, he enlists two audience members to be of assistance — one to hold the rope, and one to pull away the chair, as he interrogates onlookers, asking “is this the kind of thing you like to see?” It is an uncomfortable moment because it is a difficult question to answer honestly, given the character’s lack of likeability; having been teased and tormented, Malvolio projects his ridicule upon the audience, vowing from the outset “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” (He is.)

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As a one-man show, “I, Malvolio” is demanding drama. Physically, Crouch gives an entertaining John Cleese-like performance as he ponders the nature of madness. (‘Some are born mad. Some achieve madness. And some have madness thrust upon them.’) Despite his ragged and soiled appearance thanks to his grimy, stained bodysuit, with grubby turkeycock headdress and tattered yellow socks, he repeatedly assures audiences, “I’m not mad.” The statement is actually debatable, given the way the performance meanders into pathos in a quest to illustrate how ‘old dogs deserve better.’ And therein lies the show’s genius.

“I, Malvolio” is an eloquently written show, cleverly crafted to incorporate phrases and lines from “The Tempest”. At times, this serves as detriment; words cascade over each other with such haste that little time is allowed to ponder their imagery. Despite this verbosity, its ethical underpinning is clear. “It’s all too easy isn’t it? To laugh at people. .. To exploit a weakness. … To take pleasure in someone else’s downfall.” And don’t old dogs deserve better?

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