Russ Hunt's Reviews

What the Butler Saw
by Joe Orton

Theatre UNB
February 2001

Productions of Joe Orton's plays seem always to fall off the wagon on one side or another. Orton himself said that they should be played straight, as though none of it were funny, allowing the laughs to grow out of the situation, and sometimes (as in the ART Loot last year) people follow that advice right off the end of the dock; on the other hand, you find productions playing it rather like a Benny Hill show which happened to be scripted by Monty Python. Theatre UNB's production of What the Butler Saw tended rather more toward that side, which made the evening, on the whole, a lot more enjoyable than the ART assault on Orton, although even at the end you felt that something, somehow, was still missing.

What the Butler Saw is in many ways the most outrageous of Orton's plays, and we need to be properly grateful that it was saved from destruction after his death. Less pretentious than Loot, it's a romp through notions of insanity and morality that does a wonderful job, in its utterly arbitrary ending, of sending up all the conventions of normal theatre. Anyone who remembers the parody music hall song which ended, "and he tore off his false whiskers and it was . . . Jack," will recognize the marvelous lunacy of the sudden discovery (almost the only time where Vladimir's "I was relieved and yet somehow appalled" actually might make sense) that the two younger characters are in fact the twin offspring of a casual encounter between the main character, Dr. Prentice, and his wife, in a dark closet, during a power failure, in a disreputable hotel before they knew each other (or perhaps we might say, at the exact moment they first knew each other). The visiting inspector of Prentice's asylum (Dr. Rance, a role which seems written for someone like John Cleese) is so delighted to discover that he can add incest to the list of phenomena in the novel he's writing (the young man and the doctor's wife -- his mother -- have just been having it off in the bushes) that we're carried along in the general ebullience.

Along the way, the play has a wonderful way of turning standard moral and social assumptions inside out and hanging them upside down for our amused contemplation. "Were your relations with your secretary normal?" asks Rance. "Yes," replies Prentice. "Well, Prentice, your private life is your own affair. I find it shocking nonetheless."

The UNB Theatre production wisely pretty much let the dialogue have its head, and although there were enough moments when actors didn't seem entirely focused, on the whole the timing and the headlong pace of the production swept us past them. The set, which followed exactly the outline in the Samuel French edition, even to the strange curved riser snaking across the acting space through Dr. Prentice's consulting room, was solid and useful, and served wonderfully for the regular dashing in and out of semiclothed fugitives of one sort and another. I particularly liked the way the stage was extended forward and closed off on the sides, to warm the unforgiving starkness of the Memorial Hall stage. There were compromises -- a wheelchair had to stand in for a gurney, for instance -- but in general the production was just loose enough that minor gaps didn't seem to matter in the general hilarity.

One wonders how much funnier it all might have been if it had been more finely focused. In the event, Darren Cummings's Dr. Rance was rather excessively over the top from the outset, leaving himself not much of anywhere to go, and Meghan Mesheau's Geraldine Barclay, the applicant for the secretarial position who winds up naked and committed to the asylum with her hair cropped, didn't seem quite to know whether she was supposed to be a more or less normal person, shocked and appalled at being asked to remove her clothes as part of the interview, or whether she thought this sort of thing more or less normal. As Dr. Prentice, Clark Richards didn't always give us the sense we might have had of the increasingly inspired lunacy of his improvised explanations of the implausible, and I wasn't always sure whether Mrs. Prentice actually was the nymphomaniac her husband describes her as. But most of these uncertainties are actually implicit in Orton's script, and it's not clear to me how they could be solved. As it was, a good time was had by all, including those of us in the audience, and it may well be that a tighter, more thoughtful production would have been less funny.

It's hard to know whether director Tara Simmonds accepted this or chose it, but clearly we should be grateful that her work, and that of everybody else involved, let us see What the Butler Saw in an incarnation that, I think, Orton would have enjoyed.

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