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Preparing Malvolio for performance with MFFEV5 Parts and Cues

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 2016, we’re going to run a play-reading of Twelfth Night on January 17th (as close as we could get to Twelfth Night. We’re also going to run a play-reading on Saturday, April 23rd, but I’m not sure which play yet). We hope other groups might do something similar using our MFFEV5 Twelfth Night. We’ve been using MFFEV5 internally for our last three play-readings so now we’re confident enough that, for the first time, we can run a prepared reading.

Ten players are coming to that reading, so we’ve used the mulit-part casting feature of MFFEV5 to allocate the roles in the play to players. I am going to be player 5 of 10, playing Malvolio and 1st Officer, and so I have already started preparing Malvolio. I chose Malvolio (I’m the casting director) because I fear I’ll learn something about myself. Malvolio seems to be a Puritan, and Puritans were unpopular with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. I come from a Scottish Presbyterian background in the 50’s, which has its Puritan overtones. I think of Malvolio as ‘MacVolio’ – a Scottish Presbyterian – with a Scottish accent.

I thought you might be interested in how I use MFFEV5, Parts and Cues, and Highlit Text to go through my preparation of Malvolio. As usual, there are ‘three steps to heaven’, and they’re outlined below. I think you’d find it helpful to have a copy of MFFEV5 Twelfth Night  open as you read this article. Click on the following link, and a new window will open up, next to this window, where you can see the text, and configure it. This is easiest to do on a desktop or laptop, which more than 60% of you use to access Players-Shakespeare.com. Click on the following link to open up Twelfth Night:

MFFEV5 Twelfth Night

Before I start – a confession. I am not a very good actor. So this may not be how Sir Ian McKellan or Dame Judi Dench would prepare. In fact I heard the other day that Anthony Hopkins’ process is very simple. He just keeps repeating the words of his part ‘until they’re all right’. I’m afraid I need a bit more structure than that. So this is how I prepare:

Step 1: Read the play

The first thing I do, is read the play to familiarise (or refresh my memory) as to what it’s all about. I do have an annotated copy of the play (usually the Arden Edition) to hand  as well, but I try and avoid using it unless I really can’t understand something. Reading an annotated edition stimulates the intellect and I don’t think myself into a part, I try and feel myself into a part. This first run-through is not an in-depth reading, but a fairly fast reading to get an idea of the structure of the play, the story(ies) it tells; and to spot any vocabulary difficulties (e.g. – what does Viola’s ‘fadge’ mean?). Now when you click on the link to MFFEV5 Twelfth Night above, (and now’s the time to do it) the play opens in ‘Full Text’ mode, so you can read the whole play by clicking on the A?S? buttons one after the other.

These buttons are at the top of each scene, in case you want to change scene, and at the bottom of each scene, so, when you’ve read a scene,  you can select the next scene, and the CloudPlayer automatically takes you to the start of that scene – isn’t that smart!

Personally, when I’m not learning how to use MFFEV5, I find this best done on a mini-tablet.  Extensive reading on a PC or laptop is a bit tiresome, whereas a tablet (in a nice leather cover) is rather like a book – and you can sit where you like. To go even further, in my view the Apple Mini iPad is the perfect tablet for this. I can curl up next to a blazing log fire with my ‘book’ and read Twelfth Night – great fun!  (Of course you may have to adjust the font size to suit whatever technology you’re using – I covered this earlier in a Tutorial on using MFFEV5)

Step 2: Studying my part(s)

Now when I’m preparing  a role, I become like many actors – I become obsessed with that role. Frankly, I wonder why the playwright worried about all the other characters, when mine is so central. I want to know how many lines I’ve got, and how many scenes I’m in, so the first thing I want to do is look at my part (and all the other parts are a mere distraction).

MFFEV5 Parts and Cues helps me with this. Having read the play, I turn on Parts and Cues for my role(s) as follows:

  • Open the CloudReader Configuration window by clicking on the Cogwheel in the top right-hand corner of the MFFE Twelfth Night window.
  • Click on the Multi-part Casting radio button to make sure it’s on
  • From the scrolling list of multi-part castings select ‘Player 5/10: Malvolio, 1st Officer’ (because that’s what I’m playing)
  • Click on the ‘Show Parts and Cues’ radio button to make sure it’s on.
  • Click on the Cogwheel again, to close the CloudReader Configuration window.

Why don’t you do this, as well, after making sure you’re on A1S1 of the play? When you close the CloudReader Configuration window you may be horrified to discover that all the speeches have disappeared, leaving only the stage directions and cues for those stage directions. This is because Malvolio doesn’t appear in A1S1. Press on the next scene (A1S2 button), and, much to my horror, the same occurs and in A1S3, and A1S4, until finally on A1S5, some lines for Malvolio appear. Whilst we’re at it, we might as well check out the rest of the play to see how many scenes Malvolio is in. The answer is not very many. This is disappointing (not as big a part as we’d like) but does mean there will be plenty of time to ‘get into character’ between scenes.

Having got a feel for how big our part is, we start on a serious study of the part. I go to the first of Malvolio’s scenes (A1S5 – press the A1S5 button) and start reading my lines slowly. During this reading I’m focusing on two things:

  • First, for each phrase, I want to find the emotional tone with which I’m going to say the phrase. Someone (I think it was John Barton in Playing Shakespeare, or Michael Corbidge, both of the RSC) told me to have a different emotional tone for each phrase in each speech. A speech said with one emotional tone is boring, but if the emotional tone changes with each phrase, the speech comes alive.  So, for Malvolio’s first speech in A1S5, my Malvolio says the first phrase “Yes, and shall do, till the pangs of death shake him:”, sardonically, and the second phrase: “Infirmity that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool.” as a man quoting a cliche. And so on, for each phrase or sentence, in each scene. This process requires quite intensive attention to the speeches, and being able to see just my lines, helps me focus on my part, my character. Of course, having decided on the emotional tone, I have to actually practice saying the lines with those tones.  “I  just keep repeating the phrases ‘until they’re all right’.”
  • Second, I’m looking for curious things about the character. This is a much less structured process, but maybe some examples may help:
  • In the third speech in A1S5, Malvolio comes running back to Olivia, to say he’s having trouble with someone at the gate who insists on seeing Olivia. Now Malvolio is the steward of the house, and it seems strange that he can’t get rid of someone at the gate without asking Olivia for help. (Of course from a plot point of view, it’s good that Cesario is allowed to see Olivia, but from Malvolio’s character point of view, I find it difficult to see why he would behave like that.)  And in the remaining speeches of A1S5, Malvolio seems to find it very difficult to describe the person at the gate. Put those two curious things together, and I start to think there’s something a bit autistic about Malvolio, maybe he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, or maybe that’s how Puritans behave? Now of course this is only the beginnings of my interpretation of this fictional character.

I follow this process for each scene in the play. Some of them will be fairly easy (e.g. A2S2, where the arrogant steward, ‘returns’ the ring to Cesario / Viola.) Some are pretty difficult (have a look at A2S5, where Malvolio has a great long speech, interrupted by those hidden in the box hedge, where he fantasises about Olivia’s love for him, and what he shall do). A very funny scene, but it requires some serious work by the actor to release the humour, and make it believable. A4S2, the prison scene, is almost as difficult, but in different ways.

Step 3: Studying my inter-actions with others:

Once I’ve been through all my scenes as outlined in Step 2, I have a fairly clear idea of my part and how I want to play him. However, there’s one more thing I need to do, before my interpretation takes shape for ‘first night’. Proper actors, particularly actors in The Lard Chamberlain’s Men, seem to have been quite happy to learn their parts, and then get up on stage and interact with the other actors, pretty well without rehearsal. But I’m afraid that’s a bit too high-risk for me.

So what I like to do, is check out my speeches in the context of the interactions I have with others. To do this, I change to ‘Highlit Text’ mode by:

  • Open the CloudReader Configuration window by clicking on the Cogwheel in the top right-hand corner of the MFFE Twelfth Night window.
  • Click on the Multi-part Casting radio button to make sure it’s on, and that   ‘Player 5/10: Malvolio, 1st Officer’  is still selected
  • Click on the ‘Highlight Text’ radio button to make sure it’s on.
  • Click on the Cogwheel again, to close the CloudReader Configuration window.

Now if I (and you) go back to A1S5, by pressing on that button, I’ll see the whole script of that scene with my part highlit in a fetching shade of green. At this stage, I don’t read the whole play, but only at my interactions with others. This can highlight some things which I may not otherwise have spotted. For example:

  • If I (and you) go to A1S5 and scroll down to my first speech, I’ll see that it’s in response to a question from Olivia about what I think of Feste. This makes sense of a rather cryptic first phrase that Malvolio speaks.
  • And now, if we got to A5S1, and scroll down to Malvolio’s last line, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you?” we’ll see that in Feste’s speech just before that line, Feste says that he has taken revenge on Malvolio, because Malvolio, in A1S5, has been scornful about him: “do you remember, Madam, why laugh you at such a barren rascal”.
  • In most productions of Twelfth Night that I’ve seen, the audience always seems a bit bemused by this speech of Feste. Perhaps this is because Malvolio’s scornful remarks in A1S5 have not made enough of an impression to be remembered in A5S1. I am working on making Malvolio’s scorn in A1S5 memorable.

Now you may think that my way of preparing Malvolio is completely wrong, and if you think that, I’d love you to  let me know what you’d do. You can leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

Whatever you think of my process, I hope you can see that it is really helpful for an actor preparing a part to be able to: see the whole play; see just his Part and Cues; and see a Highlit Text version of the script. Perhaps you could try using it.

Keep playing, and enjoying, Shakespeare!

The Director,
Players-Shakespeare.com
Don’t forget – for feedback on the MFFEV5, email us at mffev5@icloud.com
See more about Parts and Cues on our Playreading Page.

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