8th March, 2017
First performed posthumously in 1969 after Joe Orton’s murder two years previously, John Lahr described Orton’s What the Butler Saw as transforming the landscape of farce from the world of daydream to that of nightmare. This has been well realised in Nikolai Foster’s perfectly pitched production which allows the comedy in Orton’s text to triumph naturally and without unnecessary gimmicks.
Michael Taylor’s impressively stylish design lulls us into a false sense of reassurance from the off. The curtains open up like an Edwardian end-of-pier peepshow as suggestive of the title to reveal Dr Prentice’s private psychiatric clinic. At first sight the brilliant whiteness and numerous doors are not dissimilar to the design for Matthew Warchus’ production of French farce, Boeing Boeing. But French windows and middle class characters aside this is not the cosy farce Orton would initially like us to think it is. The minimalist and uncannily stark space becomes a canvas upon which the plot, along with the characters’ minds, unravels. There is nowhere to hide, no corners within which to withdraw, just a series of doors – the comings and goings amount to dizziness.
Naively forced into the ensuing mayhem, prospective secretary, Geraldine (Dakota Blue Richards), enters from the forestage at the start of the play, a subtle but interesting suggestion that she may be the sole sane person in the madhouse. Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound) spends most of the job interview trying to seduce her, insisting that she strip for a ‘medical’ examination. On top of that Mrs Prentice (Catherine Russell) enters wearing a slip accusing a bellboy of attempted rape. What ensues is a series of mistaken identities and double crossings ranging from accusations of incest to necrophilia and transvestism to murder.
This is further complicated by the arrival of government inspector Dr Rance, exceptionally played by Jasper Britton, whose own sanity and authority is undermined by him screaming with wide eyed hysteria. He reminds us that in the madhouse of Orton’s play power is no guarantee of rationality: "Unusual behaviour is the order of the day… We've no privileged class here. We practice democratic lunacy". The character’s post-Freudian psychoanalytics, exploring increasingly complex links between sexuality and the human psyche, are all the funnier due to the dedication with which Dr Rance believes his own fabricated hypotheses.
Amid the farcical pandemonium, Orton shrewdly lampoons authoritarian hypocrisies and conventional perceptions of binaries such as reality/illusion, gay/straight, male/female and sane/insane. Our inherent need to compartmentalise all aspects of life, rubber stamping even intangible concepts such as ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ to create a semblance of ordered hierarchy, is ridiculed to the extent that these notions no longer have meaning.
Heading up the stellar cast, Rufus Hound tumbles around the stage, desperately trying to stop his predicament from spiralling even further out of control. Catherine Russell also stands out as his ‘fur coat and no knickers’ sexually frustrated wife. Towards the end of the play her voice mannerisms mimic a ‘Lady Bracknell’ like superiority as the conclusion escalates to a subversively devilish twist on The Importance of Being Earnest.
Razor sharp and performed at break-neck speed, there is not an ounce of fat on the play or Foster’s production, even if this is sometimes detrimental to our ability to keep up with the action. Orton’s play is transcendentally funny, socially relevant, and subversively political. Living not too far from the estate where Orton grew up, it is fitting to celebrate local talent and culture as well as remembering, fifty years on from his death, the playwright’s groundbreaking legacy and incremental effect he had on British theatre.
What the Butler Saw runs at Curve, Leicester until 18th March before playing at Theatre Royal Bath from 27th March – 1st April.