WHAT THE BUTLER SAW
Effective Theatre Company
at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe
Thus spake Nietzsche, by means of Zarathustra: “And when I beheld my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn. It was the Spirit of Gravity, through him all things are ruined. One does not kill by anger, but by laughter. Come let us kill the Spirit of Gravity.”
Before Joe Orton was killed in 1967 (by Kenneth Halliwell, his pathologically jealous lover), he had done his damnedest to slaughter the Spirit of Gravity; in devastating comedies like Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot, Orton exposed not only the soft underbelly of sexual hypocrisy and the stiff upper lip of bureaucratic pomposity but a lot of organs lower down too.
What the Butler Saw, Orton’s last and best farce, is a rampaging celebration of sexual anarchy, a relentless put-down of any attempt to repress our libidos. Teeming with mistaken and malleable sexual identities, this play exhibits an unbridled delight in people’s embarrassment at their animality and a crude desire to, as the Brits put it, “cock a snoot” at authority.
This farce thrives on what one character calls in another context “the healthy soil of a sick brain.” It anchors its anger in a satire of two dueling psychiatrists, Drs. Prentice and Rance; each is cocksure that he holds the key to normality. These nasty-minded shrinks are capable of committing anyone in their efforts to prove their power or confirm their latest crackbrained theories.
The chaos erupts over one abortive sex act, when Dr. Prentice tries to interview Geraldine Barclay, a prospective secretary, from a horizontal position. When Prentice’s clinical assault is interrupted (Orton lets no one spoil the fun by actually achieving orgasm), Miss Barclay must be quickly concealed; for a shrink the best means is a quick sedative followed by proceedings to commit her.
Entangled in the escalating deceptions, rapidly exchanging clothes and even switching sexes, are the beleaguered Miss Barclay; Nicholas Beckett, a bellboy clumsily trying to blackmail Prentice’s nymphomaniacal wife; and Sergeant Match, a bumbling constable hot in pursuit of Winston Churchill’s missing penis. (In the original 1967 production, Churchill’s cigar was substituted.)
The only things more oppressive than the cruelties these monomaniacs inflict on each other are the reasons behind them–the lusts they clumsily hide like guilty schoolchildren. Orton’s obsessives are prisoners of their own privates, sexual machines who delight in their lack of control; they not only deserve but want what they get. Orton anticipated that the setting would include a row of vaudevillian doors and windows–and it’s no accident that in the comedy’s creepy ending, the latter are suddenly and frighteningly covered by iron bars.
In this revival by the Effective Theatre Company the doors, windows, and bars are all missing, not to mention Orton’s inspired apotheosis: climbing a rope ladder, the characters ascend into a blazing light. But so much of the play’s subversive spirit is absent without leave that the physical shortfalls seem irrelevant.
More pathetic is what this production changes–underrehearsed approximations of Orton’s lines verge on clumsy paraphrase, and a goofy, manipulative musical backdrop doesn’t even come close to compensating for the lack of controlled comic energy.
Directed by L. Walter Stearns, this young and unfledged troupe never grasps the fact that Orton’s “democratic lunacy” doesn’t come out of his daffy plot’s madhouse complications but out of the characters’ blatant contradictions–and out of our catching them in the act of denying the act. Orton actors have to repress the urge to hurl every line like a hand grenade, and instead play to their characters’ greatest vulnerabilities. That means listening to what’s going on. Effective’s What the Butler Saw degenerates into a self-conscious screaming match, with Orton’s scathing subtleties drowned by the decibels.
What else is new? American actors often miss the deadpan, throwaway style of British humor, that reflexive acerbity that underlies even Monty Python’s broadest sketches. (Admittedly, though, Orton’s rape jokes should be literally thrown away.)
Though he can’t save the mess, one actor shows true Orton-esque concentration: Randall T. Anderson depicts his androgynous bellboy as if Nicholas really doesn’t know what’s coming next. Playing each moment for all its mayhem and momentum, Anderson gives Orton’s absurdities the right escape velocity. Too much else in this production makes a good play seem silly and overwrought. The Effective Theatre Company hasn’t managed to kill the Spirit of Gravity here.