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Malvolio Production Diary: Bits and Bobs

I don’t have much inspiration at the moment, and I said I was going to post about some of the physical bits that developed for Malvolio. Or I think I said that, anyway, and while I was hoping to get hold of some video to see how the bits actually looked from the front, if I don’t write this stuff up now I won’t remember anything worth writing. So.

The first physical bit we developed is a handkerchief bit. I suppose I could call it the ring bit, but I think of it as a handkerchief bit, because the handkerchief is the part I brought into it. When Olivia hands Malvolio a ring to give to Cesario, our actress made a bit out of having trouble getting it off her finger, eventually spitting on it for lubrication. It’s a time-honored bit, actually, like most of them. Our director encouraged me to react to her placing the spit-wet ring in my hand; I whipped my handkerchief out of my back pocket and dried the thing, and then used the handkerchief to wipe my hand, and then to polished the ring again. It’s not a great bit; the handkerchief part of it really only adds a level of fussiness. I like the fussiness, that he doesn’t wipe the thing on his trouser leg or whatever, but the handkerchief is incidental.

The thing I particularly liked about the handkerchief happened in the later scene, when I enter and accost Cesario. I have the ring wrapped in the handkerchief (I have a whole scene in the wings to re-wrap the thing) and as I say She returns this ring to you, Sir; you might have saved me my pains to have taken it away yourself I carefully unfold the cloth to reveal the ring. At the end of my line, I have my palm up with the white handkerchief draped over it and the ring in the center of the display. I end my speech Receive it so with my arm fully outstretched, shoulder height, where it remains during Cesario’s response She took the ring of me; I’ll none of it and then as I retort Come, sir, you peevishly threw it to her, and her will is it should be so returned, on the word returned I turn my palm out to the audience and the ring drops onto the floor, where it makes a satisfying rattle. Now, as I say, I haven’t seen the thing from in front, but I believe the handkerchief makes that bit work. The ring isn’t so large that the audience would see it on my palm, but the square of white cloth helps with that, and besides, makes the gesture of dropping it big enough that even if they can’t see the ring, they know what I’ve done. There are other ways to do the ring drop, of course; traditionally Malvolio puts it on the tip of his staff of office and then drops it from that, which accomplishes the same thing of making the gesture larger. I didn’t have a staff of office, so the handkerchief seemed to work.

That one pretty much hatched full-formed. Our director said react, and my instinct was to go to my handkerchief, and once the handkerchief was involved, it made no sense to put it away again until the ring was out of my possession. There were a few minor variances, mostly the timing of my ring-polishing bit—our Olivia increased the hysteria of her Hie thee, Malvolio! over the course of the run, so I naturally increased the chill of my Madam, I will to match. But our director never mentioned the handkerchief, either loving it or not or suggesting improvement, so once it went in, it pretty much stayed.

There was another bit that evolved over the course of the run, this one during the yellow-stocking scene. Olivia begins the scene in her ’garden office’, two chairs down left that indicate we are in Olivia’s place. At the bit I’m talking about, she is already up, having suggested that Malvolio go to bed, a suggestion he misinterprets, of course. On the line I’ll come to thee! Malvolio advances toward Olivia; Olivia panics and grabs a chair to put between them, its back to me.

I’ll stop, though, for a moment, because I Have Opinions about this scene, and particularly about this bit of the scene. I’ll quote:

MALVOLIO “Be not afraid of greatness.” ’Twas well writ.
OLIVIA: What mean’st thou by that, Malvolio?
MALVOLIO: “Some are born great—”
MALVOLIO: “Some achieve greatness—”
OLIVIA: What sayst thou?
MALVOLIO: “And some have greatness thrust upon them.”
OLIVIA: Heaven restore thee!

It's actually a longer bit, but it's these lines that I was concerned about before we started, as it seems to call for, well, a comic physical assault. That's how I've generally seen it done, actually, with Malvolio advancing on Olivia and Olivia running away, and so on and so forth. And that gets laughs, but… I wasn't comfortable with it. It's not that it's psychologically wrong, either. I just don't want to do a comic attempted rape, if I can think of something else to do. Well, anyway, what wound up happening was that at be not afraid, the director suggested that I ‘Captain Morgan’ the chair, referring (I eventually surmised) to the Captain’s pose with one foot on a barrel of rum. This I did, and he seemed pleased. At some point in during tech week, he asked if I could add a pelvic thrust on the word thrust, which is of course an easy laugh, and his philosophy is that easy laughs should be taken. A pretty reasonable philosophy, too, although cheap laughs aren't actually terribly interesting to me. I generally would rather do something unexpected if I can get the laugh that way, particularly in a case (like this one) where the audience will get the easy-laugh part anyway.

Well, then we got the chairs, which were not onlike this one, round wooden seat, high heart-shaped back. Not much different than the ones we were using in rehearsal, but a little bit higher in the back. The bit developed a bit more… Olivia would at the beginning of those lines be holding the back of the chair, the seat facing toward her, with the front legs resting on the ground. On greatness I would put my hand on the crown of the seat back and pull it back toward me, seating the back legs with a thunk! On born great, I would swing my leg up over the back of the chair and plant my foot on the seat. As the back of the seat was hip height, and I kept my toe pointed, the effect was (I hope) less Captain Morgan and more Minister of Silly Walks. The next move, of course, was on thrust, and I tried thrusting my hips forward whilst in that position; it was funny, as almost anything I might do at that point would be, but I didn't like it. My next attempt was to slide the chair forward on thrust, thus advancing on Olivia by a foot or so without otherwise moving; by the time I tried that out, we had an audience, and I liked it better than the pelvic thrust. I tried it again the next day (a matinee) and got the front feet of the chair caught in the lip of the trap door in the stage. Did myself an injury, which I recovered from but slowly. I went back to the hump, but didn't like it; I tried the slide again, and the chair tipped forward a bit. That's it, I thought. For the last weekend, on thrust I pushed forward with my hips and tilted the chair forward so that it was balanced on its front legs with me perched, upstage knee over the back of the chair, downstage leg stretched out behind. That, it turned out, was the correctly ridiculous pose, and got a big laugh the twice I was able to do it.

Our Olivia was kind enough to wait with her interjection until the laugh died down, but alas, it was not the most comfortable pose to hold. Well, you can't have everything.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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