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September 20, 2005

Fast, furious farce - Christie Davies reports on Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw

Posted by Christie Davies

Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw
directed by David Grindley
Criterion Theatre, London
24th August - 22nd October 2005

What the Butler Saw was Joe Orton's last play written in 1967, the same year that he was murdered by his homosexual lover and cohabitee, Kenneth Halliwell. At the time Orton's life as well as his death were perceived as somewhat outrageous. He had lived with Halliwell in an "unnatural relationship" since 1951. In 1962 they had both been sentenced to six months' imprisonment for defacing library books from an Islington public library. People who deface library books must be dead to all sense of shame; it was widely felt at the time that six months' imprisonment, the severest sentence that the law allowed, was totally inadequate for a crime of that kind.

We also know from Orton's diaries that he did more cottaging than Meg Merrilees; on one occasion he and seven other men had a simultaneous sexual encounter in a public lavatory. Even with modern computers it is difficult to calculate the different ways in which this could have been done and the probability of any particular combination being chosen. In between times Orton and Halliwell went to Tangiers to consort with Arab rent boys and live upon the Moors. Their relationship ended when Halliwell smashed Orton's head in with a hammer while Orton was in bed and then took a huge overdose of sleeping pills. Since each had made a will in favour of the other it became a matter of importance to decide which of them had died first.

At the time everyone was shocked. Today, by contrast, they would be regarded as a fairly ordinary gay couple. That indeed could have been the problem with a production of What the Butler Saw. It no longer shocks.

Indeed among the packed audience enjoying the performance was a traditionally garbed Muslim with a fine grey beard, together with his hijab-hidden wife and daughter. How times have changed since the first production in 1969. We are no longer surprised to see men and women exchanging clothes and running across the stage either cross-dressed or half naked. We no longer feel indignant at the thought of a statue of Sir Winston Churchill being destroyed in a gas explosion, such that the momentum given to his private parts results in the death of a female passer-by whose body later has to be exhumed in the search for the missing fragment. We no longer use the word perverse to describe the Ortonian antics and attitudes shown on stage.

None of this matters. David Grindley's production is as fast, furious and funny as if it were Feydeau. The admirable set with its triangular open space, four hard slamming doors for entry and exit and curtained off niche for hiding and undressing is ideal for the pursuits and transformations at the core of the play. Orton's quick and unexpected repartee and paradoxes are as alive as Oscar Wilde's. Malcolm Sinclair as Dr Rance and Jonathan Coy as Dr Prentice, the two white-coated lunatic psychiatrists in charge of a 1960s asylum are so true to life, so adept in delivering absurd lines with appropriately inappropriate facial expressions as to be a constant delight. There is not a weak link in the cast. I hardly stopped laughing all evening at this product of the mid-twentieth century's belle epoque.

The best thing about farce is that there is no plot, no characterization and no social comment. Orton's characters remain the same from start to finish, including the inane and innocent secretary played by Joanna Page, the blackmailing pageboy from the Station Hotel in pillbox hat played by Nicholas Beckett, the drunken and promiscuous but respectable Mrs Prentice and the plodding Sergeant Match are all constant humorous stereotypes, which is exactly what they should be. We never identify or sympathize with any of the characters, even when they are put in straightjackets, forcibly sedated or tricked into transvestism or losing their clothes. We know that they are merely moving parts in the engine of farce. Instead of a plot there are anarchic sequences linked by a distorted rationality. The ending is totally unexpected, even though it uses familiar narrative and theatrical devices.

No doubt a Foucault-fancying bore could find social comment in Orton's work and see it as a satire on authoritarian psychiatrists and intolerance of unorthodox sexuality. Such an approach to the play would be mistaken. What we have here is pure farce, a machine for generating as much laughter as possible. Go and enjoy.

Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, Transaction, 2002. His collection of farcical tales Dewi the Dragon Finds a Wife and other Stories will be published later this year by Dinas.

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What's with this guy? On the one hand, here under the august auspices of the SAU in The Right to Joke, he argues with God and attacks what he sees as the "injustice of Leviticus" against homosexuals, and then in columns such as this pours forth the praise of polysexual porn in a way which can only incite disgust against them. He should take note of this, which I found on a Korean website:

Whenever someone speaks with prejudice against a group―Catholics, Jews, Italians, Negroes―someone else usually comes up with a classic line of defence: "Look at Einstein!" "Look at Carver!" "Look at Toscanini!"

They mean well, these defenders. But their approach is wrong. It is even bad. What a minority group wants is not the right to have geniuses among them but the right to have fools and scoundrels without being condemned as a group.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 21, 2005 06:59 PM
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