Having both never seen this play (or been to the New Theatre) before, I had little idea about what to expect of my upcoming thespian experience. I can gladly say that, notwithstanding this initial anxiety, I have not been so pleasantly surprised in many years.
Despite the world feeling more absurd than ever, the English black comedy farce ‘What the Butler Saw’ feels witty and refreshing. Indeed, in a time when we take ourselves far too seriously, it is liberating for our world to be hyperbolised through an absurd lens, producing an effect similar to breaking the ice. In a genre that is far too underutilised these days, farce provides a lovely method for communicating the inverse absurdity of a different context to provide a refreshing insight into our own. This is exactly what we see here. The play’s uncomfortable moments are skilfully balanced by its humour to strengthen its broad criticisms of the hypocritical orthodox upper-class establishment. It was refreshing to sit through a play where I didn’t have to think too hard, have quite a few laughs and yet still manage to find meaningful insights into myself and society by the end.
The plot of the play quickly develops into a complex maelstrom. Opening in a private psychiatric clinic, Dr Prentice (Ariadne Sgouros) convinces Geraldine Barclay (Martin Quinn) to take her clothes off as part of her job interview as his new secretary. From that moment on, the farce is unleashed as Prentice attempts to seduce Barclay – with repeated and increasingly escalating shifts into sexual and psychological exploitation, gender confusion, lost and mistaken identities, nymphomania, transvestism, incest, blackmail and bribery increasingly getting out of hand. From Dr Prentice’s upper-class morality subverted by deep sexual repression to his foil manifestation, Mrs Prentice (Jake Fryer-Hornsby), dressed in just a black trench coat and high heels with a sexually aggressive aura, the formula feels mathematically perfect. The manifesting calamities brought on by the mad Freud-esque Dr Rance (Amrik Tumber) adds to tantalising absurdity of the play. The more ‘normal’ characters (Geraldine Barclay, Madeleine Carr as Nicholas Beckett and Andrew Guy as Sergeant Match) make the audience feel roped into the mess with a series of cross-dressing and false admissions, corrupted by self-serving interests.
Playwright Joe Orton’s vision feels viscerally anti-establishment. He overtly critiques big government, the intelligentsia, orthodox morality, and the upper-classes. Despite being written in a different epoch, his criticisms seem somewhat distant, but yet at the same time it feels oddly familiar to a contemporary modern Australian audience; institutionalised gendered hypocrisy concerningly still rings true in our context (see: Brett Kavanaugh). Interestingly however, some elements appear more absurd due to them being somewhat dated in our context, such as the diagnose of nymphomania for Mrs Prentice, which paradoxically strengthens the play.
The cast were superb, with excellent chemistry, connection and intimacy between their diverse characters. Notable standouts include Sgouros’ Dr Prentice and Jake Fryer-Hornsby as Mrs Prentice for their excellent stage presences (both together and separately). The employment of the accent coach Alistair Toogood proved a worthwhile masterstroke with the accents by each actor being of a superior quality in comparison to many other excellent productions (see: Luna Gale).
Ultimately, this show didn’t disappoint in the slightest, with many clever laughs from an excellent cast that each had a solid grip on the play’s intention. The play’s content itself was refreshingly different from many other productions, setting itself apart in a deeply memorable way. Clever choices from the production team and director Danielle Maas made this play a carefully constructed and nuanced treasure. Very well done.