I Malvolio, May I Have The Pleasure?

I, Malvolio
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
May I Have The Pleasure?
Traverse@The Point Hotel (Venue 105b)
4 stars ****

IT’S NOT A FACT THAT interests anyone very much; but some time in the last generation, Britain quietly reached the end of its long 400-year history as a broadly Protestant, not to say puritanical, nation. So it’s more than intriguing to see a theatre artist as talented and brilliant as Tim Crouch revisit – in detail, and with terrific skill and passion – the Shakespeare character who stands like a gatekeeper at the beginning of that historical period: the steward Malvolio, from Twelfth Night, who is a “kind of puritan”, who is relentlessly mocked and bullied by an alliance of clever servants and hard-drinking toffs, and who famously, at the end of the play, refuses to have anything to do with the neat nuptial celebrations, vowing prophetically that he’ll be revenged “on the whole pack of you.”

Crouch’s 60-minute Malvolio was originally created, along with three other similar plays, as a way of introducing restless teenage audiences to Shakespeare; but there’s never anything less than fully adult about this searing deconstruction of the conflict between Malvolio and – well, who? Not only the other characters, it seems, but us, the audience of relentless good-time boys and girls, laughing at Malvolio’s humiliation, mocking the brief hope of love he enjoys, and seeking amusement in a decadent, cross-dressing, make-believe art-form that Mavolio, like any good Puritan, roundly despises.

In creating his Malvolio, Crouch doesn’t have to reach very far back in British history to find the kind of highly-disciplined, authoritarian character he needs; this Malvolio comes across like a 1950’s ex-military man in some undignified postwar job, trying to discipline a crowd of neds who laugh at him behind his back. And the audience recognise the character too; gone from the range of figures we are urged to respect, but still deeply present in a life-denying corner of our psyches – in the raging headlines of the Daily Mail, or in the office health-and-safety control freak, lining up the paper-clips in neat rows, and trying to make sure that no-one has any fun at all.

Adrian Howells’s latest show-cum-personal encounter, May I Have The Pleasure?, is exactly the kind of theatrical event that Crouch’s Malvolio would dismiss as a sign of our terminal decadence. Slightly shapeless, strongly sensual, and, as Howells would be the first to admit, just a little self-indulgent, it leads us into a glamorous function-room laid out with the debris of a wedding reception – balloons, favours, empty glasses – and, over 90 minutes or so, tells the story of Howells’s remarkable experience as a serial best man, bridesmaid and pageboy, a role he has performed some eight or nine times in his life, without ever himself being the bridegroom or bride.

The point of the show is to explore the pain and possibilities of remaining single, in a society where the vast majority still aspire to coupledom; and despite the elegance of his presentation, Howells has very little to say on that subject that isn’t pretty obvious. He is, though, a formidable historian of the post-Malvolio transition British society has undergone in his 49-year lifetime, from a society where most people’s lives were held in a tight rictus of class and convention, to one where the social fabric is so weak that it imposes few restrictions, and where he happily attends the civil partnership ceremonies of his gay friends. And all of this is conjured up with almost painful vividness in the archive of old wedding videos Howells uses to illustrate his show; a litany of flared trousers, bad hair, looming divorce and terrible speeches that is both embarrassing and intensely poignant, too close to home, and yet somehow irretrievably lost.

Joyce McMillan
Until 28 August
pp. 271, 279


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