Breathing life into forgotten heroes | Tim Crouch

The dynamic British theatre practitioner Tim Crouch will be in Malta later this month to perform I, Malvolio – one of his many quirky reinterpretations of William Shakespeare’s marginalised characters. He speaks to us about his process.

Tim Crouch performing I, Malvolio at the Latitude Festival, 2012. Photo by Bruce Dalzell Atherton.
Tim Crouch performing I, Malvolio at the Latitude Festival, 2012. Photo by Bruce Dalzell Atherton.

Given your experience of site-specific and experimental theatre early on in your career, what would you say first inspired you to break out/break into alternative theatrical forms and spaces? Was there a ‘moment’ when the spark to do that first became apparent to you?

I was a traditional actor for many years. This was the unhappiest time of my career. Unhappy, because it was always a struggle to get work.  And unhappy because much of the work I was doing didn’t excite me. I almost came to the end of my love for theatre. And, when you are at your lowest point, this is when the good stuff can start to grow! It was all or nothing. I am very lucky that, at this moment, I started to write. And I have been writing ever since.

Would you say that there is a certain ‘trap’ when it comes to experimentation... that the expectation/stigma of ‘artiness’ can potentially turn away audiences? Did you feel the effect of this quite strongly at any point in your career and if so, how did you learn to negotiate it since?

In art, every work should be experimental. An artist who repeats what they have already done is not very interesting. Experimentation goes with the territory.  And this is very different from ‘arty’. ‘Arty’ implies fake – or an art for art’s sake.  With every piece I’ve written, there is a story to tell – and my process is about finding the right form with which to tell that story. The story determines the form – and sometimes the form determines the story! But I never go to work with the intention only of being ‘arty’.

I suppose nothing is as easy as your first play. Every play after that has a pedigree, a history – it is aware of where it came from. This is a kind of trap.  There’s also a trap for the audience – they may come to the theatre expecting to see a ‘Tim Crouch play’. So they come with expectations. This can close an audience down – prevent them from being open to what they are about to see. 

Again, I try to avoid all this by thinking of the story I want to tell, thinking about how I want to tell that story and then just getting on with it.

You’ve written for a variety of ‘age groups’. How do you go about adapting the content to a particular target audience? How do you usually start?

I, Malvolio was originally written for ages 11-plus, but a good piece of theatre should work for every age group. This, I hope, is true of I, Malvolio. It explores some ideas that I am interested in – ideas about theatre and audience and community.  It also connects, of course, to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – but it does not lose its independence because of that.  I try to always think of my audience when I write – so to have a young audience to think about helps me focus. 

I would also say that young audiences are much more open that older ones!  They come with no preconceptions – they come ready to play! I wish adult audiences were like that.

On to your Shakespeare ‘I’ plays. What first attracted you to undertake this set of plays, with this particular approach? Were you always drawn to these seemingly marginal, maligned characters, or did you tackle them individually, inspired by the play they’re ‘sourced’ within?

I started with Caliban. I never intended to write a series. I suppose I feel that each character’s story is unfinished. In The Tempest, they all depart the island and leave Caliban on his own. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peaseblossom has one line! Banquo is killed. Cinna the Poet has one short scene in which he is mistaken for someone else and killed. And then there’s Malvolio. His last line in Twelfth Night is “I’ll be revenged upon the whole pack of you.” And that’s it. He leaves.  And I’m left wondering – what? What revenge? What will you do? 

So, I like characters who I think have more to say. Writing these originally for a young audience is good, because young people are marginalised in the way these characters are marginalised. 

Speaking about I, Malvolio in particular, how does the show differ from the other ‘I’ plays? Do you think Malvolio suffers a particularly unjust legacy, and is your aim in the show to rehabilitate it somewhat?

I, Malvolio has been the most successful of these plays for me.  It plays to my strength, I think. I played Malvolio in a production of Twelfth Night in New York a few years ago. He is a great stage character. He hates the theatre – and there he is, stuck inside a play! Twelfth Night is a comedy, but Malvolio’s journey through it is tragic. I want to give him his moment in the sun.

Finally, are you looking forward to performing in Malta? What kind of reaction are you expecting from the audience?

I’ve never been to Malta. I am intrigued to visit this country with such a fascinating past. I have performed I, Malvolio in Moscow, in Italy, Athens – all round the world. I was worried that the language of the play would become an obstacle, but this doesn’t seem to have happened. Malvolio is a clown as well as a tragic figure. He is an immediately identifiable character – and it will be interesting to see how identifiable he is to the Maltese. Particularly as he represents an old school Britishness – a Britishness which Malta has had its fair share of!

I, Malvolio will be performed at St James Cavalier, Valletta between April 3 and 6 at 19:30. Tickets at €12 (€10 concessions) can be booked by calling 21 223200, emailing [email protected], or by logging on to