by Joe Orton
Memorial Hall, March 2004
I suspect Joe Orton would be astonished to learn that his outrageous black farce of 1966 has become a standard item, one of the most regularly produced plays in the language. Perhaps we overestimate how surprising and shocking its upending of conventional morality was back then. It is true that at the opening the British censors insisted they wouldn't let the play be performed without changes (for instance, insisting that "buggery" be replaced by "beggary" and that the corpse be "inanimate and not played by an actress"). But it had already been four years since the publication of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, with its wonderful scene of the pathetic victim in an alley being beaten and shouting "Help, Police!" and Yossarian not knowing whether he was shouting for the police or as a warning that they were there, beating him. So it shouldn't have been that much of a shock when, in Loot, the plea "The police are for the protection of ordinary people," provoked from Orton's Truscott of the Yard the scornful "I don't know where you pick up these slogans, sir." In any case, it's clear that things have changed in the third of a century since Orton scandalized the Lord Chamberlain, and it's become more and more difficult to imagine a director taking his advice about producing it.
Orton famously thought that it should be played entirely straight, as though the characters -- and the actors -- had no idea it was at all funny. I've seen the play four or five times now, and though the ART in Boston three years ago made an inconsistent (and not very successful) attempt to play it straight, I've not seen anyone summon up the nerve to follow Orton's advice thoroughly. This may well be because, as the shock values of lines like "If I ever hear you accuse the police of using violence on a prisoner in custody again, I'll take you down to the station and beat the eyes out of your head" has declined, the necessity of exaggerating the characters and cranking up the volume generally has increased. Dumping cadavers out of coffins into wardrobes, or handing round the deceased's teeth and eye, doesn't create nearly the shock now it once did. Overplaying may be the only way left to get the laugh.
Certainly that is the case in the Theatre UNB production, where under Katie Mulholland's direction, nearly everything is played right at the edge of chaos, and occasionally just slightly over. This note is sounded right from the opening scene, where the predatory nurse Fay (played with enthusiastic, eye-rolling, manic sexiness by Karen Lizotte) puts her move on the mourning McLeavy (the always effective Josef Addleman), lowering her uniform zipper and observing, "you've been a widower for three days. Have you considered a second marriage yet?" The audience isn't given the leisure to consider the unlikeliness of Orton's ramshackle plot, as McLeavy's son Hal (greasily and clumsily criminal, as played by Jeremy Gorman) and his partner in crime, Dennis (the clean-cut and entirely deceptive mortuary assistant, played with what often sounded a nearly Irish plaintiveness by Adam Rairdon) pursue their lunatic plan to conceal the money from their bank job in McLeavy's wife's coffin, hiding the corpse in a wardrobe, and as the parodic Truscott of the Yard (think a British Inspector Clouseau, crossed with Columbo, but unabashedly on the take, as played by the solid Matthew Spinney) swaggers about, stumbling over the corpse while keeping one eye on the main chance. Regularly, zinger lines were punctuated for us by momentary freezes and nicely timed, portentous chords from the sound system: nicely done, but I wondered whether we really needed to be reminded so often that we were supposed to find something funny.
Line for line, in fact, it's all pretty much sure-fire funny. Orton's ear for the pompous and sanctimonious pronouncement -- and for how to skewer one -- has never been bettered. Who else could have written, "That's typical of your upbringing, baby. Every luxury was lavished on you -- atheism, breast-feeding, circumcision. I had to make my own way." And yet the production, in its enthusiasm, seemed to miss a good deal of Orton's deadly satire. All of the actors occasionally lost lines in their British accents. Details regularly seemed not to have been looked after. For instance, Dennis props a chair against the door while he and Hal switch the loot and the body, but the chair isn't high enough to reach the doorknob. The audience couldn't tell whether this was a mistake. Twice, the screen used to conceal the disrobing and wrapping of the corpse fell over with an amazing bang; it was pretty clear that this wasn't planned. Throughout the evening the sense that it was all pretty loose and undisciplined grew, and undermined the audience's need to know that things were deliberate. This is often a difficulty with amateur productions of knockabout farce; the trick, of course, is to choreograph everything very tightly, without losing the sense of risky physicality. That, as we all know, is far easier said than done, and if a company is going to err, it's clearly preferable to err on the side of undisciplined physical comedy -- even if that means losing the level of audience attention that keeps up the voltage on lines like Fay's response to Truscott's "I'm no fool!": "Your secret is safe with me."
Right down to the ramshackle closing, with the four amazingly amoral villains triumphing over the haplessly and naively honest McLeavy, the UNB production never allowed the breakneck, roughhouse momentum to flag. It may well be that that's the only way to make Loot work, almost three decades after Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python broke open the floodgates Orton was pushing on, but it's certainly a reminder of how much things change, even while they're remaining the same.