Damian Callinan in The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

There’s no show without Punch, and there’s no festival without Shakespeare. But this year’s Brisbane Festival was not the place for conservative productions, or even edgy full-length shows. Rather, we had only two shows which gave us totally different theatrical experiences, and really did range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The first, I, Malvolio, from the brain of the insightful British actor Tim Crouch, was a masterpiece of lateral thinking that brought a new depth to our understanding of Twelfth Night. Malvolio, steward to the Lady Olivia, has always been an ambivalent character for an audience — he is Puritanical in a court of frivolity, and is made the butt of cruel jests and humiliations. In the play he becomes a figure of fun, and we see him at first as Shakespeare intends: mournful, ridiculous, clad in a ragged one-piece undergarment, and with those famous cross-gartered yellow stockings ornamented roughly with black felt pen.

But as he stands alone on stage, revealing himself warts and all to the audience (and thank goodness he was wearing a thong under his torn onesie), and tells his own tale, he draws the audience in until we begin to see him not just as a buffoon, but a figure to be pitied and, eventually a kind of tragic non-hero.

If all this sounds rather too serious, let me assure you that there is plenty of crude humour and tricksy audience participation, where Crouch assumes control even over the most recalcitrant members of the audience when they interfere with his props. He handles very delicately two children in the audience, one a small boy who delightedly kicks him in the arse, and another slightly older girl who has obviously been taught about stranger danger and is reluctant even to hold the rope which will hang him, much less touch his hand, even though her parents were urging her on. But no harm was done, and eventually she is drawn into the action although, like us, she isn’t sure at first whether he will actually hang himself, or try but fail in the attempt.

Underneath all the slapstick and self-deprecation there is a broken man here, who forces us to pity him. A superb performance, and I would love to see the interpretations he has made of some other peripheral characters in Shakespeare’s plays: I, Caliban (The Tempest, which would be a fascinating counterpart to Browning’s poem on the same subject); I, Peaseblossom (A Midsummer’s Night Dream), I, Cinna (the poet from Julius Caesar) and I, Banquo from Macbeth. What a brilliant series for all students and lovers of Shakespeare to see to gain new insights into these much-loved plays. For me, I, Malvolio was one of the highlights of the festival.

The ridiculous, however, was a product of the usually astute South Australian State Theatre Company, and I think the less said about The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged), the better. I’ve seen similar contractions of the plays before, but this 90-minute attempt is crass buffoonery, unfunny, unintelligent and about as subtle as a high-school farce. Why this rubbish was inflicted on a festival audience I cannot understand — it was insulting not just to the audience, but to Shakespeare himself.

But for those for whom too much Shakespeare is never enough, the Swan of Avon continues to amaze, amuse and delight during radio station 4MBS’s annual Shakespeare Festival this weekend at Bulimba, and on October 6 in West End. See the website for full details.

The details: I, Malvolio played the Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse on September 17-21; The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged) plays the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until October 6 — tickets on the festival website.

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