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Malvolio Production Diary: getting cast and getting started

So. Having read two very enjoyable production diaries recently, I’m going to attempt to write one this time through. It won’t be a whole book, but, well, we’ll see what happens. I’ll start, at least. The production runs August 12-28, so this should be the work of a summer.

I suppose, having written a bit about the audition already, the next thing to write about is the call: Tuesday late afternoon, I got a call from the director of the play, offering me the part of Malvolio. I let out an involuntary ohmygd as he said it. I am still half-convinced he said Antonio. Also, as is usual for me during this time between being cast and the first read-through, I fully expect to arrive and hear the director say no, I meant the other guy. Still and all, it has happened, I got cast, and immediately felt utterly terrified, so that’s step one. Malvolio! What the hell am I doing with Malvolio?

I was sufficiently panicked to neglect to ask the director any but the most basic logistical questions. I do not, for instance, know how this production will be set in Time and Place. And I didn’t ask whether he is directing a broad and silly comedy or a gloomy and dark one. That is, whether the audience should feel bad for Malvolio or not—there are other aspects to it, but that’s the main one. You can leave Malvolio a figure of fun (and Sir Toby also a figure of fun in a different way) and that’s a totally legit choice and in fact was the obvious and default choice for a very long time. Or you can play up the undeserved torture of Malvolio and the menace of Sir Toby, twisting the audience’s initial sympathies, which has become the last couple of generations’ default. Our director presumably has a choice in mind, but I don’t know what it is. I begin my preparation, then, at sea, which is an excellent metaphor to begin preparation for this show.

Only it wasn’t so much beginning, as I did a fair amout of work before the audition, so once I got the part, I was scarcely starting from scratch. I have often had the leisure of doing that; I don’t remember the last time I got cast in a play without having done a fair amount of research beforehand. For a show like Hearts, that was reading the playscript and a handful of reviews; I didn’t research the specifics of the setting and the historical events in advance. For Shakespeare, it’s a lot more. That’s largely because I really enjoy learning about Shakespeare, and largely because the CUP Shakespeare in Production series is so wonderful. Have I talked about these books before? It looks like I mentioned them when I got the part of Jaques, but I didn’t talk about why they are so wonderful. They have lengthy essays at the beginning, which are quite good, looking at trends in performance over time (and place). The full text of the play is extensively footnoted with specific information about dozens (maybe hundreds) of productions, culled from promptbooks, reviews, films, recordings, pictures, books, memoirs and other records. Cuts and rearrangements to the text are detailed, along with descriptions of sets and blocking, bits of business and characterization. It’s like having a conversation with a bunch of actors and directors and set designers, only less irritating, and easier to get out of bed the next day. If you like Shakespeare, you’d probably enjoy going through one of these books, even if you aren’t preparing for a production (or writing an essay). If you are preparing for a production, they’re invaluable. Unless, I suppose, you’re the sort of actor that gets too tangled up in other people’s interpretations to work on your own. Myself, I’m perfectly happy to read about other people’s productions, and I love looking at pictures of other people’s productions (the Designing Shakespeare Collection is a major time-sink) and I will even listen to audio (the Arkangel productions are wonderful and unabridged, but there are also a lot of bibs and bobs on-line) but I feel very uneasy about watching video. Actors are different one to another, just like real people, and have different sorts of boundaries on this stuff.

Anyway, I do a fair amount of research beforehand, mostly for my own benefit, although if there will be an opportunity to read from sides, I don’t want to be handed anything I can’t at least place into its context in the play. So my first read after getting cast is not really a first read, not even really a first-read-with-an-eye-to-playing-the-damned-thing, but it does come with a sharpening of focus. I’ll write it up in pieces, then, one scene (ish) at a time and post a bunch of them over the next week before the first read-through. Before get to the opening curtain, though, I’ll put the front matter in this note. The title has some information in it, but not really for Malvolio; the alternate title What You Will seems to apply more to the strand of the play that includes him. And, probably, points to a more light-hearted tone, although of course that choice is the director’s. In the character list: Malvolio means something like dislike. Whether he is named for disliking things or being disliked or both will be an important decision, I think. It’s interesting (to YHB) that it’s a serious villain name, not a buffoon name. Sir Toby Belch is given a buffoon name, as is Andrew Aguecheek, but Malvolio is a serious sounding name. More Voldemort than Barty Crouch.

And then to start on the first scene.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,



Thank you, kindly.

Fantastic! I am excited to read your production notes. When will you be on stage?

Thank you! The show runs August 12-28.

Woohoo! I'm excited for you.

I am not super familiar with Twelfth Night, but A.R.T. did a neat adaptation for kids last winter, which i went to with irilyth's family, and i have learned from wikipedia that Malvolio in that adaptation was played as a giant squid. So that's another option to consider...

Anyway: congratulations!

Thank you both!

And yes, there is a good deal of textual support for the Squidvolio interpretation, although it does create some practical issues with blocking and costume. I will raise the matter with our director.


Congratulations! Malvolio is a great part, and I look forward to reading what you make of it.

I'm late to the Production Diary, so you may have gone farther into the name later on, but the traditional scholarly gloss of Malvolio is "ill will," usually linked to Olivia's diagnosis of Malvolio's character in 1.5, "O you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite."

Thank you! I haven't yet given the name much further thought. It's clear that Malvolio has ill will and is the object of ill will. I will give some thought to his distempered appetite… he has to like some things (Olivia, or perhaps just power and wealth) for the plot to work at all. Although it's not clear that he likes anything he actually has, as opposed to those he imagines he might like if he had them. There is much to that in the play as a whole.


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