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That's Entertainment!
Last night, inamac and I went to see the production of Entertaining Mr Sloane at Trafalgar Studios. Though this is a wearing play for the actors (it is a four-hander and Sloane and Kath, at least, are on stage for a large proportion of the time) I am not sure there is a lot of room for personal interpretation in this play. It's one of those theatrical experiences where the author is totally dominant. You might as well go with the flow and let him rip, which is what this production (directed by Nick Bagnell) did. It was almost sold out and very well received.

The more often I see of Orton's plays, the more I think of his work as a sort of tragi-farce, if there is any such thing. The worst of the shock with which he originally hit the UK establishment has been muted over time, but the humour has not dissipated in the slightest. Indeed, today's sexually educated audiences are more likely to get the joke.

I find Orton extremely funny, which is odd in itself. Normally, I don't particularly like the humour of cruelty (or laughing at the stupid) and become very easily embarrassed for the characters. I find The Office too painful to watch. Orton is all cruelty – he seems to hate all of his characters, particularly the women – and I think the reason the humour works is that it is impossible to identify with any of them. The ones in Sloane are a thoroughly nasty bunch, and stupid with it. Interestingly, Sloane himself (Fergus March substituting in a most satisfactory fashion for Matthew Horne who was making an idiot of himself at the Brit Awards) is the least grotesque and most ordinary of the bunch, at least at the start – but then Sloane is a chameleon. Sure, he's a charming thug and totally amoral, but he's also stupid and tends to panic. His defence mechanism is to find whatever lie will satisfy the person he is talking to. You actually watch him trying out one tactic, then another, as he tries to cope with Ed and Kath in the last act. He becomes what people expect, even when bullying Kemp. Yes, he manipulates people, but it is never premeditated – even his murders are not – and, in the end, in a very odd way, he has lost the battle of manipulation. His fate is decided by Kath and Ed, both get what they want and he is divided like a loaf of bread.

As an aside, something that struck me as odd is the lack of fear the characters have for Sloane. Even Kemp (Richard Bremmer, not being stretched) who knows he is a murderer, and Kath and Ed when they threaten him with exposure, never physically fear him. Of course, the fact that this Sloane is tall and powerfully built (though all the men in this production are tall, in contrast with Imelda Staunton as Kath, who is tiny) rather emphasises this.) I need to take another look at the text, though.

Another thing that hits you over the head, and means that you must put the play in period, is that Kath is only just into her forties, but she is not just early middle-aged but, in many ways, old. A woman of her age nowadays would not have dentures, but it was common back in the fifties and early sixties, mainly because of poor diet in the pre-war years. Both my parents had dentures in their early forties. Kath is always played as a grotesque, but that aspect is toned down in this production, where the excellent Imelda Staunton, while never making her sympathetic, does give her an initial sadness.

Which reminds me – the set design (by Peter McKintosh) is a corker, the quintessential 50s living room in fading browns and beige, with wallpaper peeling off in great swathes, bounded by chopped-though brick walls.

It strikes me that Orton was the type of gay man who disliked women in general, and that, to borrow a phrase from media fandom, heterosexual sex squicked him. Of course, in the period he was writing, the homosexual aspects could not be as vividly drawn as Kath's desperate nymphomania but, all the same, it is very noticeable that we are not meant to sympathise with Kath's needs, while we might have a sneaking hope that Ed's repression can be broken. (I hate to say it, but Simon Paisley-Day's tightly-buttoned – in all ways – Ed reminded me irresistibly of John Cleese and the Ministry of Silly Walks. Perhaps it was the height, and the thinness, and the suit, and the ever-present briefcase.)

To be fair, one does feel some sympathy for Kemp, if only because it is a wonderful portrayal of a stubborn old man losing his faculties. (The business with the crumpet is great.) However, even when Sloane beats him to death, one does not feel any great shock or sadness, and the black humour rides roughshod over any sensibilities. There was a chap in front of me who howled with laughter all the way through the third act, even during the bits that might be regarded as tragic.

Ultimately, there is no heart to this play, but maybe that's the whole point...

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I agree with your last line -- I think that applies to all of Orton's plays. I can't watch The Office either, and squirm at comedy with a high embarrassment factor. But I don't think Orton expected anyone to sympathise/identify with his characters (same with Pinter imo). So laughing at them is easier, albeit still slightly uncomfortable. Orton was testing the boundaries of the time, to see how far he could go. So now the goings-on do appear rather tame.

I'm always intrigued by what shocks and what doesn't on stage and in literature. I was discussing Sarah Kane's Blasted not so long ago with a group of 20-somethings. They didn't bat an eyelid at the blood and guts. But they'd just read Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library and were far more shocked by the descriptions of men cottaging.

Well, we're probably not the sort of people to be shocked by cottaging! (I don't often read Modern Literature - note the captials - but I have read The Swimming Pool Library and was both entertained and impressed.) Film shocks me more than theatre - I think because in theatre one is always conscious that these are real people acting while film is more immersive and sometimes your brain equates it with reality. (The start of Saving Private Ryan is shocking, because you know that this was how it was.) Books rarely shock me (though they may disgust me.)

LOL, I know we do move in, um, unusual circles re. our knowledge of cottaging and the like *g*. I enjoyed (if that's the right word) TSPL a great deal, possibly more than the sequel of sorts, although I thought the TV version did it justice. The latter did capture very well the political feel of the time.

Interesting point about the theatre and being conscious of where you are. I do remember seeing a production of King Lear at Stratford some years ago and feeling sick at the blinding scene. But people laughed during the gruesome scenes in Titus Andronicus, as it all seemed faintly ludicrous.

I rarely go to the cinema -- I calculated not so long ago that I've seen about 50 films in my life. I can't think of one that's really shocked me. Man Bites Dog, a weird Dutch arthouse movie about a serial killer acquiring film students to film him in action just made me laugh!

I have become much more interested in film over the years - the DVD collection numbers around 400 films, and we go to a dozen or so a year... it may be more when I retire and we can take advantage of Orange Wednesdays.

To bring all part of this discussion together - one of the funniest films I know, and one which is not yet available on DVD, though I have it on video, is The Ritz which is a farce set in a gay bathhouse in New York. Your group of young people would be shocked, shocked, I tell you!

(NB I believe it was originally a Broadway play, but haven't seen it on stage, and it works very well on film.)

Edited at 2009-02-20 09:42 am (UTC)

I take advantage of 'three for the price of two' DVD offers, and then don't get around to watching them all. I find at the moment I'm more interested in some of the cult/classic TV releases. I intend to re-watch Edge of Darkness while I'm confined to barracks!

I'll keep an eye open for The Ritz, which does sound very entertaining. An American friend, who has published fairly extensively on gay literature and film, is usually a good source of info for new releases.

Oh, Radio 4 did a very good programme on Kane's work (and the reception to Blasted) this morning. Worth a 'listen again'.

Plays are very much of their time, and social attitudes do change - Blasted shocked because at the time it wasn't 'done' to put contemporary violence on the stage (the convention is to address modern issues through period pieces - hence The Crucible, and Dario Fo's works) the position had been gradually eroded (by Orton among others) but then you got Romans in Britain and all hell broke loose.

I'd be interested in what it was about the Hollinghurst that shocked - the fact of cottaging, or the 70s period response? I seem to remember seeing some stunned comments about the portrayal of Wilfred Brambell's arrest and conviction in last year's BBC Curse of Steptoe play - by youngsters who weren't born at the time.

Edited at 2009-02-19 05:13 pm (UTC)

Thanks for the tip-off about R4 -- I am laid up ill at home and sleeping at funny times, so I missed it!

The Romans in Britain is a great example. I wonder how much of the response to that was down to Mary Bloody Whitehouse orchestrating it, and the completely bizarre view that some people seem to have that history should be sanitised!

With the Hollinghurst, their knowledge of very modern history was non-existent (I had to provide a potted history of Enoch Powell and the Rivers of Blood speech). They seemed shocked that men hung around in bogs looking for sex (especially when I pointed out it still happened!)

They seemed shocked that men hung around in bogs looking for sex (especially when I pointed out it still happened!)

Which only goes to show, I suppose, that many kids today don't read newspapers, watch the TV news or even read those portions of the internet that deal with Celebrity news.

The idea that history (and books that contain views of their time which are now politically incorrect) should be censored is still alive and well and living with us... especially here on LJ!

Edited at 2009-02-20 09:41 am (UTC)

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