Viv Graver chats with Emma Manton, who has just finished touring with our First Encounters Twelfth Night production, about playing the role of Malvolio as a woman.
How did you come to work for the RSC?
Although I had worked in theatre all my professional life and knew some of the directors here, I came relatively late to the RSC. In 2014, I joined the Company for The Heart of Robin Hood. The following year I worked with (director) Christopher Luscombe on Love’s Labour’s Lost and with Erica Whyman on The Christmas Truce. I have worked as an educational practitioner for the RSC since 2015, and for Shakespeare's Globe for nearly three years.
What was your own first experience of Shakespeare?
I had an inspirational teacher who introduced me to Macbeth in middle school in Leicestershire. I remember that she took us into the playground and told us all to collect a fallen branch. We took these into the classroom, placing them in front of us on our desks. And the play reading began. We were involved: Birnam Wood had come alive in the classroom and we had created it.
How did you develop the role of Malvolio for school performances and how was it received?
When I met Robin Belfield, the director, no decisions had been made. I knew that I wanted to play this authority figure as a woman. It is easy to justify both Malvolio and Feste as roles for women because the character Olivia, who is in mourning for her brother, has abjured the society of men - so her household, which Malvolio and Feste are a part of, is female.
I thought about what sort of authority figure children would recognise. Shakespeare had a Puritan in mind, but this would be far from the experience of, say, a nine-year-old in Bradford. So, my Malvolio would be more of a headmistress figure. The transformation into the yellow stockinged figure was achieved by our Design team visiting the costume workshop, as the RSC now follows a policy of upcycling where possible. They found a chorus girl yellow creation, all flounce and feathers, from a 2016 production of The Merchant of Venice. It fitted me perfectly and helped me to create my new Malvolio persona.
How did your audiences react to Malvolio?
The younger, primary school children were touchingly sympathetic, helping me decipher my name in the letter, and concerned when I was set upon and humiliated, asking if I was all right. But as the audiences became older, they tended to sneer at authority - so Year 8 and 9 audiences tended to side with Sir Toby Belch. It was good when they realised that the joke had gone too far.
What have you learnt from the experience of touring to 18 venues, from Tyneside to Suffolk?
I benefited from having worked with children in these areas as an educational practitioner. I knew my target audience. I can see that theatre in some of these regions is not in a good place and, sadly, money to support theatre visits may be missing. But I am inspired by the amazing teachers in our associate schools who are prepared to work alongside us. They need us, as we need them, to build the audiences of the future.
Emma Manton played Malvolio in our recent First Encounters production of Twelfth Night.
Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.