As is typical for comedy, Twelfth Night rehearsals are fairly dour affairs. We are wrestling with the language ( "Erm, why is this hilarious?"), the set and in my case my ability to stand upright and not knock someone over.
Tonight a new thing was added to this already heady mix. Our director wants to set up Malvolio's big entrance as an audience collapser. It's signposted a long way ahead and it needs to be a killer of a sight gag. Clever old Will gives us several scenes without seeing Malvolio at all. We wait and wait, as the description of what he's up to gets more elaborate.
The prime mover in all this is Maria, who writes the original letter (supposedly from Olivia and suggesting none too subtly that she's in love with Malvolio). In it, false Olivia lists some things she particularly likes about Malvolio - his yellow stockings, his cross-gartering and his smile. In the interim, Maria must spend a lot of time spying on him, because all her entrances from this moment contain a progress report on how much of twit Malvolio is making of himself.
Which brings me to the point. Hysterical laughter on stage without losing the sense of the lines. It's a technique, and it requires well placed breath. Do that a few times in a row to find out exactly how fit you aren't.
It's an interesting contrast with Malfi. Here we're also dealing with a lot of highly technical effects, but this time with the intention of freaking the audience out. Last week we had strangulation, manual neck-breaking and a re-run of all the fights. Hilarity all around.
In both cases, we're building a magician's trick box to get the response the play demands. It amuses me that behind the scenes the comedy is often rather dull and the tragedy is often gut-wrenchingly funny.