Actor, director and playwright Tim Crouch has a long-term commitment to youth theatre, and here he presents four short plays aimed at introducing Shakespeare to a younger audience. The idea is a clever one: instead of presenting a stripped back, simplified version of the plays, he takes a more oblique tack, bringing children to the stories through the eyes of a supporting character. So we have monologues by Twelfth Night’s Malvolio, Macbeth’s Banquo, The Tempest’s Caliban and Peaseblossom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On the whole, this approach works extraordinarily well, giving us four pieces that work both as standalone productions and as worthwhile accompaniments to the plays that inspired them.
In I, Malvolio, the abused servant rattles around the stage like a butler with OCD, turning his wrath at his downfall on the audience: at first he sees them as his tormentors until, puncturing the absurdities of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing plot with a deadpan wit, he realizes that it is the very art of theatre that is his enemy and the source of his downfall. I, Caliban, presents us with a ‘monster’ mourning his mother as, once more alone on his island, he looks back at the events that have brought him to this sorry pass. Petulant, self-pitying, bitter and yet heartbreaking, he is a character that never ceases to engage, and his tale sheds fresh light on the actions of The Tempest.
The strongest – and darkest – of the plays is undoubtedly I, Banquo. In this, the dead Thane looks back at the events leading up to – as well as those that happen after – his death and his reaction is not quite what would be expected. He magnificently conjures both Macbeth the fearless warrior driven to the ultimate betrayal and Macbeth the tyrant in despair, but throughout it all he recognizes that it was just luck that his own fate was different: “It could have been me” is his constant refrain, and despite everything, there is a touch of envy in his words. It is a strikingly original take on the story, and one that sticks long in the mind. I, Peaseblossom was for me the least successful – but I’m not a huge fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so find the antics of the fairies no more entertaining out of context than in it; doubtless, though, there is much in the show’s playfulness and energy that will engage a younger audience.
There are occasional misfires: an overuse of Shakespeare’s phrases might be seen as an attempt to introduce the language to an unfamiliar audience, but it occasionally jars, and I would say that most of the plays feel just a little bit too long, though this is always hard to judge when reading a piece that is meant for performance. Overall, though, these pieces provide an entertaining introduction to the Bard and an invaluable teaching aid, with much to offer both the novice and the enthusiast.