An Orton Compendium: A Genius Like Us (A Portrait of Joe Orton)

In memory of the playwright Joe Orton, whose career ended in violent death 50 years ago, the BFI is showing a season of films of and about his work. Top of my to-see list was this compendium, which comprises a 1982 BBC documentary alongside clips showcasing some of the work referenced in the documentary – What the Butler Saw, which is also being shown as part of the season, with a Q&A by Lahr, Leonie Orton and Ken Cranham – and an excellent clip of Malcolm McDowell and Beryl Reid playing a scene from Entertaining Mr Sloane which made me wish I’d made it to see the 2009 production starring Mat Horne.

The main documentary works on several levels. First and foremost, it is an exploration of Orton, his life and death, and the people who knew him. Most of the screen time goes to Orton’s sister Leonie, biographer John Lahr and agent Peggy Ramsey as well as close friend Kenneth Williams. As a result, there’s little in the film that can’t be learnt by reading John Lahr’s  biography Prick Up Your Ears. And yet, it’s the people who barely knew Orton that are most fascinating: the Islington librarian who can barely control his laughter as he describes Orton and Halliwell’s desecration of public property. The jolly publishers who betray every scrap of class prejudice they must have felt on meeting Orton for the first time in just a few minutes of chat. You get a sense of what it must have felt like to interact with Orton, and also what it must have felt like for him, attempting to enter circles presided over by the prejudiced. No wonder he had to cultivate unease and rebellion to get ahead.

The film is also a tantalising taste of documentaries past – the sort of thing I just about remember watching growing up. No slick editing or grinding repetition of recaps and soundbites, that blight today’s TV ‘documentaries’. Each subject is given space and time; they hesitate; they reflect; sometimes their words trail off and you learn as much about them as about their late lamented friend. It’s impossible, for example, not to like Orton and Halliwell’s neighbours, the Salvonis, and their simple acceptance of the two men as a couple – and one that would stick together no matter what. As Mr Salvoni repeats this sentiment about them sticking together, it’s as if he’s grasping for something else, perhaps something about love, that perhaps he can’t quite bring himself to say in this context. And yet, you know he gets it. Orton’s sister’s responses range in tone from cheeky wit when she is summing up her parents (“My father would have loved a greenhouse…but…he never aspired to that.”) to heartbreaking when she talks about the unhappiness of her childhood, or the gap her brother’s death left in her life – at that point, 15 years after it happened.

 

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The Tempest, Barbican Theatre

7/10

The RSC’s latest production of The Tempest is causing quite a stir at the moment – even among those who don’t usually take an interest in the theatre. The reason is that this production incorporates ambitious uses of projection mapping and motion capture technology. The set – the wrecked hull of a ship – is augmented by vast, moving projections that transform it from rocking ship to turbulent undersea, to enchanted forest.

The effect is both captivating and frustrating. The audio visuals work best when they are bringing the sea and the island to life. I have never seen a more spectacular shipwreck scene, with a lifelike rocking of the ship and vivid images of bodies tumbling through the water are projected onto a cylinder onstage. Digital projection allows the landscape to shift from underwater to forest and back again – at times it was even like a magical underwater forest – everything you expect from a sorcerer’s island. Thanks to these projections, Prospero’s recreation of Ariel’s years in the pine tree becomes a scene of physical and emotional torture, in which we see Ariel once again imprisoned in its boughs – it’s also the only moment when this Prospero appears to be truly cruel. And yet, sometimes the effects feel overdone – Ariel’s hounds of hell were too much for me, the wedding masque was overlong and the digitally projected dresses on Juno & Friends were overkill.

Far more striking than the projections is the fact that Mark Quartley’s Ariel wears a mocap suit throughout, allowing his movements to be animated and enlarged into spirit manifestations. This works when he is enchanting Ferdinand in the guise of a sea nymph, and when he is presiding over the waters with an eagle’s wings. It works less so well when his spirit form is being projected onto a black flag flying above the stage – the suspension of disbelief, for me, was lost. Also, in spite of all the technology, Quartley’s Ariel never manages to be sufficiently ethereal. This might be down to the sinewy suit he wears, or the fact that his movements were boldly athletic rather than quick and lithe, but the overall effect was good but not great.

And this is where the production really falls down for me: the performances are solid but not great. I’ve seen two outstanding productions of The Tempest in the past decade – a previous RSC take starring Patrick Stewart and Dominic Dromgoole’s production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in which Tim McMullan and Fisayo Akinade were outstanding and Dominic Rowan and Trevor Fox made my sides hurt from laughing.

Simon Russell Beale’s approach to performing Shakespeare has always thrilled me – the verse trips off his tongue as though the words had just formed in his head, making every scene feel like reality rather than drama. And yet, when it comes to Prospero, this ability becomes a weakness: Prospero is meant to be larger than life, especially in the early stages of the play, where he doesn’t have much stage time.

For me, at least, Prospero is one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic characters. After all, the tempest is raging within him as well as around the island. SRB’s natural delivery means that he never manages to convey the very dramatic emotions – rage, obsession – that drive Prospero in the early stages of the play. He is more like Leonato preparing industriously for the arrival of his distinguished guests than a man hellbent on revenge. The crucial moment – and change of heart – that occurs when Ariel shames his master by saying that were he human he would pity the prisoners, loses its impact if Propsero has never been that angry to begin with.

Ultimately, it’s a production that has a lot of good things about it – but only the technology seems really fresh. Everything else, I felt I had seen before. Joe Shire – understudying Joe Dixon – seemed to relish the role of Caliban, but I found the production’s interpretation of Caliban too overtly troll-like for my taste. Shire really took to the role, though, and added his own nuance to Caliban’s pain and frustration – the final scene where he finally walks upright and strides into his cell with his Prospero’s broken staff won me over entirely. Simon Trinder’s Trinculo seemed to have walked out of an episode of The League of Gentleman and he and James Hayes as Stephano never really achieved the energy and chemistry I have seen in other productions. You leave not exactly disappointed, but with a sense of exciting possibilities left unfulfilled.

 

 

 

 

 

I Loved Lucy, Arts Theatre

I haven’t given this show a star rating, because it’s an odd one to review: a truly unspectacular show in itself, but with an outstanding central performance.

There’s a particular species of Hollywood or theatrical biography in which a well-loved female star is befriended by a much younger man, they become constant companions, and a claustrophobic, generally codependent relationship forms. The star is usually in the last decade or so of their life and the young man is invariably a fan struggling to make his way as a writer. The biographies are generally a combination of anecdotes, eccentricities. Start and loyal subject always seem to fall out when the star’s health really declines, often as the result of some pushing by family members concerned about undue influence and protective of The Will.

I Loved Lucy is based on one such biography. Patrick, our narrator, is a lifelong Lucille Ball fan who is lucky enough to be distantly related by marriage to her second husband, Gary Morton, which leads to him developing a friendship with the lady herself. Patrick plays backgammon, visits her in Hollywood, acts as her PA when she is New York, accompanies her to movies, and watches helplessly as she stumbles through her final TV series.

None of this is interesting. What is interesting is how perfectly Sandra Dickinson captures Ball – her voice, her energy, her biting wit. When Patrick starts tediously – and endlessly – recounting the plots of I Love Lucy episodes, Dickinson doesn’t roll her eyes. She stares at him, as if waiting for him to get over his bout of verbal diarrhoea. It’s little touches like this that make her performance so captivating- and worth watching. There’s also a healthy dose of vulnerability: mixed in with the big, impressive tales about her Hollywood friends is disappointment about the failure of her first marriage and the compromise of her second. Genuine or fabricated, Dickinson plays the conflict well.

The show drags somewhat. There are only so many Lucy anecdotes one can sit through before the novelty palls. The timeline is inconsistent both with history and within the  play itself. Patrick is not an enjoyable character or a particularly engaging narrator. The best he has to recommend him is that unlike many similar biographers he always had a steady job, career and life of his own away from his celebrity friend.

The Arts Theatre seems to specialise in this kind of biodrama – in the past it has put on shows about Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – and the performances are always well-attended so there must be a market for them. See it if you love Ball, or Dickinson, or both. Otherwise, see something else.

Common, Olivier Theatre

3/10

I’m afraid to say, I found Common uncommonly bad, fell asleep at one point and left at the interval feeling somewhat perplexed as the play appeared to have ended, but not finished. I realise not every first act ends with a cliffhanger, but they should, as a general rule, leave the audience wanting to know what happens next. That this one didn’t is the least of its problems.

What I could extract from the nonsense before me was that Mary is a foundling who gets slung out on her ear after having an affair with her adoptive sister, goes to London, makes some money whoring, gets knocked up and comes back to her country roots to take her long lost love Laura off to Boston to bring up baby. Along the way she spars with Laura’s brother, King, meets a boy with an allegedly possessed crow on his arm and does a lot of protesting about the enclosure laws that are about to come into force. The dialogue is awful. DC Moore has decided to draw comparisons between 19th Century peasants and sink estate youths – at least that’s the only plausible explanation I can dream up for writing a play in language that jumbles together complex archaic constructions with a touch of the Wurzels. The resulting effect is something akin to white noise punctuated with the word “fuck” at various intervals. Moore’s only strategy for raising the occasional laugh is to use phrases like “pissy pipe” and “furry hole”.

Lest we mistake this for a genuine play of the period, Moore makes certain to indicate that its influences are scrupulously contemporary. In a scene reminiscent of the coming-of-age ritual of many a Corrie/Emmerdale/Eastenders teenager, Mary abruptly announces “I’m pregnant!” mid-argument. People are constantly digging graves, and no-one watching really cares who died (or is about to). About 30 minutes in, I took a nap. The nightmare was that it was all still going when I awoke.

In fairness to Amy Downham (Mary), she was only standing in for Ann-Marie Duff, but her performance felt more like that of someone reading from a script they’ve read once or twice than one who believes in the character or story being portrayed. Perhaps she’s read the notices which, I understand, are no good, and given up on the play like the rest of us. Cush Jumbo, as Laura, does some acting and I must admit hers were the only lines and scenes I managed to remember after making my escape.

There are some positives. This play has an interval, allowing the imprudent ticket purchaser to escape after 90 minutes. I liked the set. The dusky skyline splattered with crows in flight is very striking, and I liked to focus on the distant, glowing horizon with its roofs and spires whenever the boredom got too much to bear. I was able to work out what sort of view I’ll get when I go to see Follies in September, and ponder what that set might be like. And I liked the costumes: Mary’s red riding outfit was very striking, and the Woodland Folk looked delightfully sinister.

But of course, when the play is so poor that all your joy comes from rustic rabbit heads, you know the production is in trouble.