It may be midsummer in the woods of Attica but the fairy Peaseblossom is well-prepared for rain with rather fetching flowery wellies and a hiker’s raincoat. He’s an inveterate chatterbox too, and you probably wouldn’t want to get stuck with him on a long country walk, unless you’re somewhere between the age of six and puberty, whenever that affliction begins these days.
The young school-kids at this early afternoon show certainly appreciated Peaseblossom’s fifty-minute walking-tour of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, told – as are Tim Crouch’s handful of other Shakespeare adaptations for young audiences – entirely from the angle of various minor characters. Walking in a literal sense, as, before the show proper begins, Crouch wanders through the crowded rows, mumbling like a demented train-spotter before mounting the steps to the stage, giving a fairy blessing to everything his little eye spies. Later, to everyone’s delight, he walks over the rows of seating, precariously balancing himself, to distribute props and do some buttering-up of an already appreciative audience. Hands shoot up all over the place when he asks for volunteers to play Titania and Oberon and the other pairs of lovers.
Crouch’s angle of approach to this somewhat loose age group is perfect: casual, flippant, self-mocking, and slightly risqué. He points out that the happy couples and guests at the group wedding are all sleeping together, “couples – coupling!” It’s doubtful that they quite understand the significance of the coupling, but they do get Peaseblossom’s tone of amazed distaste.
What’s particularly pleasing about Crouch’s patter is how he smuggles in Shakespeare under the children’s noses. His routine is peppered with phrases and lines from the play, spoken in natural, undeclamatory tones; his own punning and word-play – “I can feel it in my waters, in my Fairy Liquids!” – fitting in well with the punning jocularity of the play.
There’re only a few moments when a slightly more didactic tone takes over and Crouch’s spell threatens briefly to weaken: when he explains how the Athenian craftsmen are putting on a play to celebrate the nuptials of the duke and his bride. The craftsmen are wooden figures dangling from an umbrella, each of which he clutches in turn, thrusting them at us in an uncharacteristically explanatory rush.
There’s no danger of Crouch’s spell weakening in I, Malvolio; which is a brilliantly sustained reverse heckle of a much older audience, courtesy of Olivia’s killjoy steward from Twelfth Night. We stand in for the rowdy drunken Uncle Toby Belch and his fun-loving followers, while Malvolio gives full, and very detailed rein, to his scorn of our vile and decadent ways. We’re hard-pressed to find much of the play in this contemptuous ticking off of everything from the way we’re dressed – we obviously haven’t made any effort – to our ‘dead eyes,’ but this very personal attack captures the personality of the self-confessed Puritan steward perfectly, and it’s very funny, convulsing us with somewhat uneasy laughter.
The steward has a lot to be abusive about as, after being tricked by Belch and Co. into believing that a letter asking him to dress outlandishly and act contrary to his character was addressed to him by Olivia, and would win her favour, he’s been locked up as a madman by the pranksters. “I’ll be revenged upon you all” is a constant refrain, and despite the fact that he’s dressed in torn and stained long-johns with a large rip in the seat, wearing yellow socks, and a sort of tight-fitting medieval villein’s cap which gives his face the rictal avuncularity of Vince Cable, the threat has a certain menacing dignity.
The berating of the audience never lets up, even when their assistance is required on stage, which happens fairly frequently. Malvolio needs the help of a young girl, whose name he mockingly mispronounces, and a young man, to help him hang himself. It’s a wonderful piece of physical black comedy, and particularly relishable here in Ireland, where suicide is rarely the subject of comedy.
Crouch is also to be commended for Malvolio’s rant against the absurdity of all the cross-dressing in the play with the resultant unfeasible confusion of identities. This gets almost as much scorn as the audience, and what a relief it is to hear it. The comedies, and Twelfth Night in particular, can be exasperating for someone who prefers the histories and tragedies, and it’s nice to have one’s bias supported by one of Shakespeare’s own comic creations.