We’ve run through each scene at least four times now. We have probably passed out of the part where it’s too early to make big decisions; I hope we’re not yet at the point where it’s too late to make big changes. This is where the good stuff happens. I hope.
In a few different things that I have been reading in the last months, actors have said that with Shakespeare, it’s important to play individual scenes individually—that is, not to fret too much about resolving contradictions within the character arc. To some extent, this is Shakespeare’s much-vaunted complexity, his creation of multi-layered roles that have something of the contradictory nature of actual humans. To some extent, this is modern (post-Stanislavsky) actors recognizing that their twentieth-century training can be unsuited to works of a different era, and trying to adapt. I think it was Juliet Stevenson (although it might have been Harriet Walter) who when asked how her performance changed over the course of a long repertory run, said that she found herself thinking less and less about setting up the next scene, and focusing more and more on the current one. That sounds lovely. For any actor with modern training, though, it is tremendously difficult to do character work without thinking in terms of that character arc, the through-line, and consistency. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I suspect that the character work is done in rehearsals and discussions before the play gets on its feet, and that once that is done, the structure exists that allows the actor to forget it and concentrate on the individual scenes as individual scenes.
Malvolio has seven scenes. I’m not sure I’ve laid them out in the blog like this:
- The Court Scene (I,v)
- The Ring Scene (II,ii)
- The Carousing Scene (II,iii)
- The Letter Scene (II,v)
- The Yellow-Stocking Scene (III,iv)
- The Prison Scene (IV,ii)
- The Last Scene (V,i)
I could annotate it a bit like this:
- The Court Scene (I,v): with Olivia, Feste. Officious, arrogant.
- The Ring Scene (II,ii): with Cesario. Officious, arrogant.
- The Carousing Scene (II,iii): with Toby, Andrew, Maria, Feste. Officious, arrogant.
- The Letter Scene (II,v): with audience (Toby, Andrew, Fabian watching). Arrogant, ambitious.
- The Yellow-Stocking Scene (III,iv): first with Olivia, Maria, then with audience, then with Toby, Maria, Fabian. Mad, obsessed.
- The Prison Scene (IV,ii): with Feste (Toby, Maria watching) (Feste is also Sir Topas). Fearful, angry.
- The Last Scene (V,i): Olivia, Feste (others present). Angry, obsessed.
My descriptions are vast simplifications, of course. I might choose different words tomorrow. But I do think that there’s a strong element of officiousness—I might describe it more fully as the extent to which Malvolio embodies his office as steward—in the Court, Ring and Carousing scenes that is not present in the last four scenes at all. It may come through in flashes in the Prison scene; it may color his exchanges in the end of the Yellow-Stocking scene. But largely in the last four scenes Malvolio is doing something other than being the steward of the Countess’ court, while in the first three that is the core of his character.
What I need to think about, in terms of character and consistency, is the extent to which the ground needs to be laid for the later Malvolios in those first three scenes. That is, when Malvolio capers in yellow stockings, it should be a surprise, and it’s funny because it’s a surprise that someone like the Malvolio we have learned to know in the first three scenes would do that, but it shouldn’t be absolutely impossible. The Malvolio of the Ring Scene has to, in some sense, be the sort of person who under the right circumstances would caper in yellow stockings. Would gibber and wail in the Prison scene, would speak the Last scene’s pathos in verse. While I do think that in the end the audiences will work with whatever we give them, and of course I will have consistency in accent, costume (well, in a sense anyway, and may well stay in the increasingly bedraggled yellow stockings through the end of the play) and figure, I need to think of anything else that can usefully be consistent through the play. And I need to think about that now, so that perhaps I can usefully not think about it on the night.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,