Joe Orton’s 1969 black comedy farce that revolves around workplace sexual harassment, rape humour, gender fluidity, and saturated with transphobia and gay jokes, feels like an odd choice to restage in 2018. Especially given how deadly seriously such issues are being taken over the past year or so, with marriage equality, increased Trans awareness and the #MeToo movement fighting the Alt-right barbarians at the gate, to the extent that current social media has mostly descended into a dumpster fire of politicised discord.
Of course… that was probably the point. Even at the time Orton (himself a gay playwright) penned What the Butler Saw, the homophobia et al. presented onstage was naturally not to be taken at face value, as it was a subversive play. The difference, however, lay in that Orton was writing in an era where the prevailing mainstream attitudes towards homosexuality, transvestism, and even heterosexual promiscuity to an extent, were deemed beyond the pale by “respectable” society, not to mention being in many respects literally illegal. By depicting a manic farce replete with coercive cross-dressing and characters under threat of being either consigned to an insane asylum for “gender inversion” or arrested for sodomy, Orton was poking fun at the hypocrisy of his lusty but in truth predominantly heterosexual characters, and thus respectable theatregoing audiences. However he was also slyly “normalising” such concepts by openly presenting them as humour rather than serious drama.
All of which begs the question… is it really still subversive in a post-“YES vote” 2018 Sydney to present this as farce? This isn’t to suggest for a moment that the battles are all won and everything is now completely fine and dandy in the wake of unfailing social progress or that we are now free from such prejudice by any means. Yet this humour’s intrinsic reliance on the implied societal acceptance of a staunchly conservative heteronormative respectability as per the play’s original milieu seems more than a little dissonant today, even viewed as a period piece. And let’s not even delve too deeply into the incest and rape humour that are rife throughout the play. Yes, it’s farce, and black farce at that, and yes, it can well be argued that this still has its place. But really, in the current political climate, such content as a topic for comedy strikes a very awkward note indeed.
The whole question is complicated by the non-traditional choice to present this play almost entirely in drag. Cross-casting all the roles other that the most overtly bigoted (yet ironically perverted) Dr. Rance, a government inspector on a power trip, means that we witness an almost Shakespearian gender-pretzel of, at various points, an actress portraying a male character attempting to disguise himself as a woman and then as a different man… and vice-versa. While certainly serving to further “queer” the whole proceeding, especially for the two chief characters of Dr. and Mrs. Prentice who never cross-dress in the narrative, it’s hard to say what this really adds to the play in any meaningful sense.
Perhaps director Danielle Maas considered it an ironic extra layer to add to a play largely predicated on cross-dressing and gender confusion, or that it would impart a kind of pervasive “wink” to the audience that they are definitely not supposed to take this play at face value. The aisles of the New Theatre were festooned with reproductions of authentic vintage magazine advertisements which blithely traded on extremely sexist and racist humour. This would seem to indicate that such an approach was indeed the intended context – “look how incredibly offensive the past is to us now”.
Which is fine… except that Orton’s play was intentionally offensive, but in the conservative context of his time. Perhaps the political stance of Maas’s production is either simpler or conversely more nuanced than is readily apparent to this reviewer, but frankly the messages felt mixed to the point of seeming garbled.
Another unfortunate detraction is the rather uneven cast. Perhaps I was spoiled by the extremely fine work on show in New Theatre’s recent production of Nell Gwynn, but these actors seemed to be struggling to pull off the material here, although they can’t be faulted for their enthusiasm. To be fair, high farce is a difficult style to tackle, and it really requires performers at the top of their game with finely honed comic timing and abundant stage presence, which sadly this ensemble lacked.
While everyone involved was clearly giving it their best shot, and Amrik Tumber as Dr. Rance came pretty close with his arch antics, only Jake Fryer-Hornsby in the role of Mrs. Prentice really nailed the requisite tone. With an evident commitment to character and hilarious precision of delivery, Fryer-Hornsby’s haughty but progressively more panicked and unhinged society lady nets easily the best moments of the show, time and again.
It is entirely possible that overthinking this play proves to be its undoing, either in its production or as an audience member. Despite being a lover of farce I found it fell flat far more often than it ever aroused my occasional titters or precious few legitimate chuckles. Conversely though, my date enjoyed it very much, as did at least a solid proportion of the audience, based on their audible laughs, but it hardly felt like they brought the house down.
To give this staging of What the Butler Saw the benefit of the doubt, enjoyment of it will likely be much enhanced by divorcing oneself from taking the political climate of the play, either in 1969 or 2018, too seriously. Unfortunately of late, that is difficult for some of us to do.