Possibly one of the most eagerly awaited elements of 2017’s celebration of Joe Orton was the uncensored production of his 1967 hit Loot. It could easily have been an academic exercise, but instead is hilarious, vibrant and deeply macabre.
Orton was known in his lifetime for being shocking – but 50 years have passed since then. And yet, Loot still shocks – but not where it used to. It may be perfectly normal for Hal and Dennis to close with a lingering, passionate kiss in 2017, and the proposed menage with Fay may be fairly Jules et Jim, but Orton’s talent was in making his audience feel discomfort in ways that still hit home today. In Loot, the established order of things – which has probably not changed as much as we would have like it to since his death – is constantly questioned, challenged and found wanting.
Today, Loot shocks with its modernity. Written by a man who never got to update it over time, it should feel like a museum piece. Instead, it could almost be set in the here and now. The societal norms and trends Hal and Dennis are trying to buck don’t seem out of date. Anecdotes – such as Nurse Fay’s career killing off her patients – seem quite prophetic given that in the decades after Orton’s death cases of that nature received high-profile attention.
There is often discussion about how Orton’s plays should be performed – watching filmed versions of Orton’s plays from the 1970s is difficult because the lofty acting styles and the material don’t match. One of the challenges of performing his works and making them relatable has always been the fact that it’s farce written in quite elevated language. One of the reasons I suspect his plays work well now is that audiences have become used to TV shows like Blackadder which also pairs at times quite literary dialogue with farcical action. Graham Linehan’s sitcoms – notably Black Books and Father Ted – also came to mind as I watched, laughed, and stored away quotable quips for the future. The result is that unlike much work by his contemporaries, Orton’s voice feels modern.
In fact, watching Loot, you can’t help wondering whether had he lived – not just dodged his lover’s jealous hammer, but also the AIDs epidemic – the 1980s might have been Orton’s heyday.
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.