If you have seen the current RSC Twelfth Night, you will probably vividly remember poor Malvolio in his on stage prison. Although his dark cell was on the stage level the impression of it being in the basement was given by the other actors entering that space in an elevator from the gallery level. When we made a short adaptation of the play at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage we set the whole play in the maze and Malvolio’s dark cell became a leafy dead end (despite the fact that as soon as we filmed this scene the sun broke through the clouds in an attempt to rob us of our shady cell).
Twelfth Night was originally written for the indoor space at the Inns of Court but may at other times have been performed on the outdoor stage. So where might Shakespeare have imprisoned Malvolio?
If we look at the language Malvolio uses to describe his prison he speaks about it being as dark as ‘hell’ this could easily give us an impression of him being confined beneath the stage since this space was known as ‘hell’. However at the Inns of court at least this would not have been possible as there was no formally constructed stage (complete with trap door) just a square playing space which made use of two doors on the back wall as exits and entrances and had the audience on the three remaining sides. Also putting Malvolio under the stage restricts the possibilities for the actor, even if he is allowed to peep up as he is in the picture here of a recent production.
So at least in it’s first performance it is likely that Malvolio’s prison was a constructed space made to resemble the discovery space in the public theatres. This could easily be made from a trellis arch (a portable prop which was probably used in other plays too) possibly with a large drape / tapestry hung in front of it (again a prop used in other plays) This would create a small booth like prison for Malvolio, the cloth could be drawn back to see his suffering but would also make his comments about the ‘dark’ quite logical.