Norwich and Norfolk Festival at the Playhouse, Norwich
Irving and Olivier, Sinden and Sher, Nigel Hawthorne, Simon Russell Beale – so many memorable Malvolios. But none, I'm sure, got under the skin of the steward as successfully as Tim Crouch, in a wonderful one-man-show of his own devising.
It's actually the fourth of his Shakespeare solos, with Cinna [the poet] to come later this year.
The houselights are never completely dimmed; we, the audience, are Sir Toby Belch, we represent the forces of disorder and misrule, with Malvolio the lone, sane voice of reason. And there's no shortage of latter-day cakes and ale for him to rail against – slouching, binge-drinking, inappropriate dress – the way he says "DVD" makes it sound like the distasteful work of the devil.
In the best tradition of stand-up, the innocent are singled out: reading the programme, blowing one's nose, laughing, all ruthlessly pounced upon.
"Find that funny, do you ? Is that the sort of thing you find funny ?" is his refrain, for all the world like an old-time schoolmaster. At other times he's Basil Fawlty, or the nutter on the bus – "I am not mad ..." - with Olivia's discarded letter the catalyst for a priceless rant about litter – "a godless mass of filth".
"Somewhere between comedy and pain," he advises, encouraging a lad in the second row [still wearing his school uniform] to come up on stage and kick his proffered arse. And that's the melancholy magic of this unsettling monologue: we laugh at this wretched "funny, funny man", but shift uncomfortably in our seats, knowing that laughter can easily turn to bullying and bear-baiting, as our hero is "hideously abused". Some moments are very bleak, but even the hangman's noose is testing tragi-comedy, with two more 'volunteers' up on stage, Joe to hold the rope, Lizzie poised to pull away the bentwood chair.
Crouch starts off in his grimy, fantastical, prison garb, with a red wattle under his chin and "Turkey Cock" pinned to his back. By the end he is his Puritan self again, and is cleverly "revenged on the whole pack of you".
Along the way he unpacks the mad "improbable fiction" of the plot of Twelfth Night, and explores the dark despair of lost love, the struggle between order and anarchy, and the cruel comedy of Illyria and the playhouse.