The Old Vic, 1953/4 – Michael Hordern’s Malvolio

As I was saying… The best Malvolio I will ever see was Michael Hordern’s in a production by Denis Carey (then boss of the Bristol Old Vic). We used to come down into the auditorium to watch him rehearse (that was not at all customary in an otherwise up-and-down season). He had us helpless with laughter.

About ten days from opening, Michael began work and to our amazement we watched him fluff, stop, go back and fluff again. We sat up, shaken, alarmed, uncomfortable. I think they were getting into the hand-kissing scene where Malvolio enters cross-gartered, with yellow stockings. As Olivia’s steward (Olivia was played by Gwen Cherryl) Michael, using his height and nobly carved, finely battered face had been, in the early scenes, the utter epitome of grandeur and drawling pomposity and we’d seen him invent the most marvellous change for his ‘stockinged’ entrance.

He lost a couple of feet by bending his body at forty-five degrees… he sent Olivia the fiercest blown kisses garnered from the palm of his outstretched hand, three or four in rapid, crazy succession and his smile was demonic and extremely lewd at the same time – a kind of burlesque Don Quixote.

But this particular day, having just dropped the book, he kept drying and horror of horrors for us lot who had begun to look to him in the company as the outstanding actor we could learn from, his timing had gone; it was all over the place. He kept going back and back, trying to get the scene right, with Denis making rather faint and gentle encouraging sounds, when Michael suddenly turned to us watchers and said; “It’s all right. At this stage in rehearsal this always happens and I reflect on what other trade I could pursue, and should I go back to teaching because it’s obvious I can’t act; it lasts a couple of days and then begins to go away. It happens every time. Don’t worry; it’ll be all right for the opening.”

And it was.