Director David Grindley has stated that Joe Orton “deserves to be regarded as the worthy successor to Oscar Wilde. What the Butler Saw is Orton’s The Importance of Being Earnest”. Having viewed the latter play just the day before it seemed like a perfect segue to catch up with Orton’s farce in a version staged at The Curve, Leicester – the childhood home of the playwright.
What The Butler Saw premiered just months before Orton’s senseless and very brutal murder in 1967 and even today has the power to shock. Set in a mental institution it is in some respects standard farce fare (lots of trouser dropping, cross dressing, mistaken identities, lecherous authority figures and ludicrous coincidences) but presented in such a way that it also comments on the genre – one character, for instance, remarks on the plethora of doors that feature on the set. As designed by Michael Taylor this is a thing of pristine sterility which is soon to become sullied by the actions of the characters who inhabit it.
Rufus Hound plays the central figure of Dr Prentice, a psychiatrist with more issues than his patients. Hound starts by cutting a louche figure who soon descends into several layers of lunacy; he is particularly good at the physical comedy. Outstripping him in both character authority and acting presence is Jasper Britton as Dr Rance who commands the stage and delivers Orton’s lines with the precision and timing that they deserve. Rance is clearly unhinged from the get-go and Britton’s increasingly manic demeanour is a masterclass in comedy. Not far behind him is Jack Holden as the libidinous hotel page boy, Nick who sheds his clothes and dons those of others with wild abandon including a leopard print dress and high heels. I had the undoubted pleasure of working with Jack on the RSC’s 2016 Dream project and know what a fine and committed actor he is, and this is amply demonstrated here.
If the piece raises any uneasiness at all these days (and actually it does) then that comes in the treatment meted out to Geraldine, the character played by Dakota Blue Richards. Forced into sexually compromising positions by Prentice’s casual and even threatening behaviour we are forcefully reminded of the #MeToo movement which has come to the fore since this production was first mounted. Similarly, Catherine Russell is on the receiving end of all sorts of abuse as the sexually frustrated Mrs Prentice. If Orton were rewriting this play today, I can’t help thinking he might have given both women a rather better deal. However, it is a piece of its period, mocking the standards of the time – while at the same time, of course, embracing them.
Director Nikolai Foster keeps a tight rein on proceedings and builds the piece to one or two good manic climaxes with characters rolling round on the floor, gun waving, blood spattered and in their underwear. However, I never really felt that this aspect was as hilarious as it might have been and the pleasure of the piece came more from Orton’s orotund dialogue. I suspect that the camera set up is largely the reason for this. To be completely fair to The Curve they make it clear that this production was only intended as an internal record and never meant for broadcast. It is filmed on a single fixed camera from the back of the auditorium and thus many of the nuances the actors employ are lost. The sound is also not the best – though there are captions which undoubtedly help and my recommendation would be to plug in your earphones. The whole effect was of sitting in the back row of the upper circle – something that I often did in younger days when both my eyes and ears were stronger. On the plus side, at least I wasn’t subjected to a film director’s choice of actor or framing shot, and could make my own choices, so in some ways it was more like being in the actual theatre.
Seeing Earnest and Butler in quick succession really brings home the debt that Orton owes to Wilde. Both thoroughly understood the use of the well-turned phrase and well placed epigram, sentences are complex and neither writer uses one word when several will do. One wonders what either man could have gone on to have done, had not their writing careers been cut short. And, tellingly, there is even one exchange in Orton’s play which seems to reference Oscar’s downfall
Prentice: Unnatural vice can ruin a man.
Rance: Ruin follows the accusation not the vice
Production photos by Catherine Ashmore
What The Butler Saw is available via The Curve, Leicester’s website here. Two further productions are also currently available – The Importance Of Being Earnest and Memoirs Of An Asian Football Casual (until April 24th)
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