Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Showing its Age: Soulpepper's Production of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane

Stuart Hughes, David Beazely & Fiona Reid in Soulpepper's Entertaining Mr. Sloane (All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann)

When it made its première in 1964, Joe Orton’s first play Entertaining Mr. Sloane was a smash hit in London. The debut put Orton on the map, as both a playwright and as one of the radical new voices in British literature. (Terence Rattigan had seen the play at the New Arts Theatre and rated it so highly that he put up £3,000 in sponsorship.) The play was mixture of farce, black comedy and social commentary that, with the advent of The Beatles and the beginning of a new wave of avant-garde artists moving into the limelight, arrived at the start of London’s burst of creativity in music, art, literature and theatre. It was a great time to be young, adventurous and to move from the world of black and white into Technicolor. And had he lived longer (Orton was murdered by his partner in 1967), he may have become as good as Tom Stoppard. But all that ended for him at the age of 34, so we’ll never really know.

In recent years, Soulpepper has revived several of Orton’s plays, Loot (2009) and What The Butler Saw (2010) to great success and full houses. Those two plays were written after Sloane as the playwright began to find a creative groove in which to work. So I suppose it made sense for the company to revive Orton’s first play as part of a “cycle.” But it may not have been the right choice: artistically speaking, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, directed here by Brendan Healy, is showing its age.

Michael Simpson, Stuart Hughes & David Beazely
Sloane (David Beazely) is looking for lodging and he happens upon a house that's situated beside a garbage dump. The landlady is a middle-aged sexually hungry woman by the name of Kath, played with great abandon by Fiona Reid. She shares the house with her father, a grumpy old man named Kemp (Michael Simpson). We learn that Kath’s only brother Ed (Stuart Hughes), a dandy, hasn’t spoken to his father in 20 years, but we don’t know why (perhaps he's disturbed by his son's homosexuality). But Ed is close to his sister and he offers the only stable relationship in her life. Ed is also a middle-aged sexually hungry man, looking for male company and Sloane, by default, becomes caught up in their needy circumstances. Both Ed and Kath then basically take advantage of Sloane.

Beazely is quite good keeping a sense of mystery around him. According to Orton’s description, Sloane’s “a good looking psychopath,” but Beazely unfortunately doesn’t play him that way. So consequently, we know as little about Sloane at the end of the play as we do at the beginning. Fiona Reid plays Kath with great, satiric commitment. She takes risks that pay off with great laughs, as she flirts and flaunts her body all over Sloane. Her need for a “man” to replace her dead son, as well as fulfil her own sexual needs, traps Sloane for six months during the course of the action. Meanwhile, the old man Kemp, played effectively by Michael Simpson, distrusts Sloane for the first two acts. Kemp thinks Sloane killed his former boss, a photographer, years earlier. The tension between them builds to a point that result in Kemp’s death. Ed, who is coyly attracted to Sloane, has since hired him to be his chauffeur, suggesting that Sloane in fact “murdered his father,” whom he wasn't particularly fond of, and threatens to call the police, unless he continues to “work” for him. Kath feigns pregnancy by Sloane and, because of her ongoing needs for love and company, she makes a deal with her brother to “share” Sloane for a few months at a time. No police action is necessary and all ends well. (Except for Kemp, of course). Individually the character work here is good, but Entertaining Mr. Sloane often feels like four characters in search of a play.

In a way the absurdity of the play would work if the director, and the cast for that matter, could decide what kind of play they have been provided. Orton’s ambiguous work may be at fault. Watching the cast last Friday night perform on the high risk, non-proscenium stage, I was amazed at how unfocused the whole performance was before me. It was as if the director couldn't decide whether the play was farce, drama or satire, consequently we got a gumbo mix of all three with not enough spice to keep it all together. This confusion was especially evident in Act II, as it was clear that the usually reliable Stuart Hughes playing Ed, forgot his lines. It seemed to rock everybody on stage and in particular Hughes, who spent the entire act making what appeared to be unnecessary exits and entrances to pick up the action. At one point, he came back with a briefcase that he probably should have had upon his first entrance. (In his defence, any play performed as circle-in-the-round, can seem awkward if it wasn't staged that way originally.) Nevertheless, it was really bizarre to see this happen but Hughes put his experience to work, and got through the act and the plot, without completely breaking down. Consequently, Orton’s shaky farcical mayhem turned into confusion for the longest time. By Act III, after intermission, the pace of the play picked up considerably.

David Beazely & Fiona Reid
As with all plays, the entire production team has a responsibility to bring it to life, from set design, lighting, and costuming on the one hand, to text preparation, movement and character study on the other. The playwright can only convey what he wants through written stage directions, character descriptions and the spoken word. Orton offers actors any number of choices regarding character and plot development in an accessible way, usually as farce. Farce is a specific form of comedy that, put simply, is supposed to be over the top. The characters perform with exaggerated behaviour and make really irrational choices that advance the plot and give us a good laugh. Farce usually has a lot of physical comedy and when done properly, can be fun for actor and audience alike. It takes the keen eye of the director to know how to stage it and what to ask from an actor in order to stage it with commitment. In this production, Fiona Reid is fully committed to the physicality of her role. The same can be said for Michael Simpson as Kemp. We know exactly who and what these characters value and what their needs are during the course of the play.

Regrettably, I can’t say the same for Hughes or Beazely in spite of the fact that they have the talent, timing and experience to do farce. It was quite evident in Act I and with a certain degree of sexual tension to keep us engaged, but it wasn’t fully realized in Act II. Usually the actor and the director are responsible for presenting us with fully finished characters, as rehearsal time permits. Once prepared, the actors can relax, enjoy themselves on stage and entertain us knowing that their hard work in following the director’s vision and the playwright’s intentions are “brought to life.”

It’s considered a huge faux pas for theatre people to question the quality of a work as “every play is perfect” and can’t be messed with, except by imperfect actors. That notion is certainly true for works by William Shakespeare or Harold Pinter or Arthur Miller or Tom Stoppard. It its 15 years, Soulpepper has effectively presented works by these four playwrights, often with magical results. In the case of this particular Orton play, I’d like to make an exception. For the superb talent of the men and women that make up Soulpepper, it’s not so much that this production is a failure, but in the case of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane, the material has failed them.

John Corcelli is an actor and theatre director.

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