Orton’s work is still pricking up our ears

Often regarded as a frivolous writer of entertainment, the British playwright Joe Orton had a seriousness and a depth that can sometimes be undervalued, says Michael Cabot of London Classic Theatre.

Orton’s work is still pricking up our ears

Cabot is directing Orton’s first play, Entertaining Mr Sloane, at Cork’s Everyman Theatre this week. It’s the 50th anniversary of a work which caused quite a stir when it was first presented at the New Arts Theatre in London in 1964.

The plot centres round the relationship between the handsome and enigmatic 20-year-old Mr Sloane, the sexually provocative middle-aged Kath, her lecherous controlling brother, Ed, and their father, who remembers Mr Sloane as the murderer of his former boss. The sexually ambiguous Sloane soon has Kath and the repressed Ed both competing for his favours. But behind Sloane’s charm and apparent nonchalance is a psychopath with a dark past.

Cabot, who studied the work of Orton at university, first directed the play in 2003. “One of our actors, Pauline Whitaker, who played Kath in our first production of Mr Sloane and is playing the role again, says the play is going to be much naughtier this time around. It’s possibly a little bit more contemporary. We can afford to be bolder with it.”

When Orton was writing,back in the 1960s, all plays had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain. “Everything was censored. If Orton had lived, there’s no limit to what he might have written. My programme notes for our 2003 production of Entertaining Mr Sloane say that Orton was potentially one of the great losses for theatre.”

Orton was murdered by his male lover when he was just 34 years old. “I’d like to think he would have gone on to be a great playwright and not just a great comic writer. There was much more to him in terms of character and depth as well as pushing the boundaries.”

Cabot describes Entertaining Mr Sloane as having a strong psychological dimension. “I think Orton understood people and social class very well. That aspect of his writing is sometimes overlooked. The comedy is to the fore. It’s very much farcical and situational comedy. But there’s so much more to it than that. Orton really understands the nuances of class and aspiration.”

While Kath and her father live in a house close to a rubbish dump, Ed has managed to rise above his family’s straitened circumstances. Describing himself as a businessman, he boasts of highly placed contacts and engages Sloane as his chauffeur.

“The character of Sloane is full of confidence and has the certainty of youth. Nothing matters apart from his view of the world.”

With the advance of gay liberation, what relevance has the play in today’s world? “I think good writing is always relevant. For me, there’s a great similarity between the work of Orton and Harold Pinter. They were very much two major voices in London in the mid to late ’60s.

“Although our ability to be shocked or surprised by Orton’s writing has changed over time, I still think it can connect to us and give us an understanding of the way people work.”

Cabot is excited about the set, and the work of British designer Simon Kenny. “His job is to create a house that sits on the edge of a rubbish dump. He has created a beautiful skeleton of rubbish and junk. It’s very clever. He has formed a circle of junk which creates the shape of a room.”

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