Review: Entertaining Mr Sloane ~ theatre notes

Friday, December 29, 2006

Review: Entertaining Mr Sloane

Entertaining Mr Sloane by Joe Orton, directed by Simon Phillips. Designed by Shaun Gurton, lighting design by Matt Scott, music by David Chesworth. With Ben Geurens, Bob Hornery, Amanda Muggleton and Richard Piper. Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax at the Victorian Arts Centre until February 10.

One of the most famous photographs of Joe Orton sums up his self-consciously louche vulgarity. He is slouched in a deckchair, naked except for a pair of white Y-fronts, smirking ironically at the camera. His immaculately tanned skin glistens, and a single lock of hair curls wantonly over his forehead. But the focus of the photo is his crotch: his legs apart, he is offering his cock for our awed delectation.

Orton was boastful about the dimensions of his penis, but in this particular photograph he is supposed to have stuffed his underpants with toilet paper. This theatrically staged image seems to sum up the flavour of Orton's plays, that sly mixture of self-mockery, frank lust and exaggerated fantasy, leavened with a casual brutality.

What's not so evident in this image is Orton's aesthetic intelligence; the comparisons with Wilde are not entirely unjust. But while Wilde's plays are exquisite machines, the works of a poet, Orton's precision was of another kind. His plays were satires on human animality, casting a sardonic eye on the hypocrisies and cruelties of middle class England. Crucially, as his biographer John Lahr points out, like all great satirists Orton was, first of all, a realist.

It seems to me that this is where Simon Phillips' production of Entertaining Mr Sloane goes dreadfully wrong: right at the beginning. This is a bafflingly bad production, so wrong-headed that it in fact makes nonsense of the play. Phillips takes Orton's disturbingly amoral universe and wraps it in a neat moral. He manages somehow to stage a play about sex without the smallest whiff of real, dangerous lust. Worst of all, he and his cast trample Orton's anarchic comedy into the ground. It's about as funny as a used condom.

Entertaining Mr Sloane, Orton's second play, was his first big hit. Mr Sloane (Ben Geurens) is a sexually charismatic youth who is pursued by both his landlady Kath (Amanda Muggleton) and her wealthy brother Ed (Richard Piper). Kath's father, Kemp (Bob Hornery) remembers Sloane's face as that of the man who murdered his former empoyer. By the end of the play, Sloane has murdered Kemp, and is blackmailed into a "practical" ménage à trois with both the brother and sister.

It's easy to see the spell of Harold Pinter in this early writing - with Samuel Beckett, Pinter was the only contemporary playwright whom Orton respected - and it has strong similarities to plays like The Birthday Party. There's the same focus on human banality, the same pervasive sense of sexual threat. And there is the same quality of edgily heightened realism, a quality Orton always claimed for his work. His plays, he said, were not fantasies: they were accurate portrayals of reality.

Loot, one of the plays that made Orton's reputation, was a disaster on its first outing for reasons that sound very similar to what's wrong here. A peformance of "outrageous mugging" from Kenneth Williams and confused performances from an all-star cast sent it to an early grave. "The play is clearly not written naturalistically," Orton said of Ruffian on the Stair, with the failure of Loot in mind. "But it must be directed and acted with absolute realism...No 'stylisation', no 'camp'. No attempt in fact to match the author's extravagance of dialogue with extravagance of direction."

Certainly, Phillips' production pays no heed to these admonitions. He directs the play as if it is an episode of Are You Being Served? - here are the same stereotypical characters, the same upper-lower-class English accents (with the concomitant laughter at lower-class pretensions), the same broad sexual innuendoes. The effect, predictably, is to terminally deflate every single comic line. I had to come home and read the play again to remind myself that it really is funny.

Perhaps the gesture that sums up the prurience of this production is the difficulty with Ed's smoking. In the script, he is a chain smoker who fetishises his silver cigarette case. Somehow Richard Piper manages to fiddle with cigarettes constantly without ever lighting one. He loses his matches; he takes a cigarette out and replaces it in his silver case; he does everything except actually smoke.

So far as I know, it is not illegal to smoke on stage in Victoria; perhaps the MTC has some sponsorship deal which prevents drug use on stage, or perhaps it simply doesn't want to offend its patrons. But then you wonder why on earth they decided to do this play. Just as this show attempts to show a chain smoker on stage without any actual smoking (despite an important scene where Ed smokes backstage, sinisterly watching the other characters) so we have lots of sexual innuendo - of the eye-popping, crotch-grabbing, bum-slapping kind - without any actual sex.

The performances are bogged down with stage business - the first two pages of dialogue take about 10 minutes - and make the play maybe half an hour longer than it ought to be. People seem to putting on coats and hats and taking them off every two minutes. The leering and winking at the audience seems to go for hours. This sense of everything being muffled by inessential detail is highlighted by Shaun Gurton's over-detailed set, an irritatingly intrusive score by David Chesworth that underlines every "significant" line and a lighting design that, like the production, permits no darkness on the stage.

The actors themselves each seem to be in a different play. There's nothing wrong with Amanda Muggleton's performance as such, aside from the fact that it's utterly wrong for the text. The tragedy that infuses Kath's life is muted into a mere joke, making the misogyny of the other characters both less palpable and less significant. As for Richard Piper: I am not at all certain what he is doing, but it's embarrassing to see such a good actor reduced to such unashamed mugging to the audience, such a meaningless constellation of tics and gestures.

About 20 minutes into the first act, as Mr Sloane (Ben Geurens) lounged unconvincingly on the couch, thrusting up his crotch in an uncomfortable simulacrum of adolescent seduction, an image flashed into my mind. I'm sure it was a photograph of the 1975 production of Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Royal Court, in which Sloane was played by the young Malcolm McDowell. The image of McDowell lounging on the couch showed me what was missing here: a charismatic amorality, a louche, dangerous charm that might, at any second, become threatening.

Geurens plays Sloane with none of the manipulative intelligence or incipient violence the role requires. This has serious ramifications later. When Sloane murders Kemp (Bob Hornery) the scene has no horror or pathos at all: it ought to be frightening. And it distorts the play grievously when it appears that a panicky Sloane - far from manipulating the situation to his satisfaction - has simply been trapped by the wily siblings. As I overheard one audience member say with satisfaction on opening night, Sloane "got what he deserved".

Orton must be spinning in his grave; such neat moralising symbolises everything he was against. The play itself makes no such suggestion. Sloane isn't punished at all. He uses his sexual power to literally get away with murder and to worm himself into a situation of considerable material comfort. And, aside from Kemp, no character in the play has any principles: each of them is prepared to do anything to ensure his or her own gratification.

Perhaps it's the ugliness of the characters in this play, their single-minded pursuit of their own gratification, which makes people flinch. Whatever it is, perhaps it's a tribute to Orton's continuing radicalness that his work must be so castrated before it can appear on stage. But it's a huge disappointment, all the same. One day, I'd like to see the play that Joe Orton actually wrote.

31 comments:

richardwatts said...

Insightful and informative - thank you, Alison.

TimT said...

A review that simultaneously makes me want to see the play and not see the play.

Did you see The Queen? I did, and a review has been posted on my site which you may be interested in, as it picks up on a comment you made at Sarsaparilla as a starting point for my own reflections. Happy New Year!

Chris Boyd said...

Terrific review, Alison. I happen to disagree with it, surprise surprise! But I'll limit my comments to matters textual...

Phillips takes Orton's disturbingly amoral universe and wraps it in a neat moral.

What is this neat moral you speak of? That two amoral adults will beat an amoral boy anyday?!

C'mon... the boy is hoist on his own petulant libido! Phillips' reading of the ending is uncontroversial, surely?

He uses his sexual power to literally get away with murder and to worm himself into a situation of considerable material comfort.

Considerable material comfort? Scenic views over the rubbish dump? Living with his potted "mum" and button-up uncle-in-law with the prospect of getting a car for himself... maybe next year?

Doesn't sound like paradise for a horny bi-sexual lad... even in 1964!

I know Orton rewrote the ending at least once, but you'll need to persuade me that SP got the ending wrong.

Alison Croggon said...

The play just doesn't make any sense unless Sloane's narcissism is rewarded, not punished, and if his profound amorality doesn't extend to himself.

Maybe it's not paradise for a horny bisexual lad now, but then it was probably sweet potato land for a working class boy. Sloane's very keen, remember, to go off with Ed (it's a bit hard to believe, in Piper's portrayal, in any sexual attraction, but the script comments somewhere that Ed is a pretty buff man - around 40, too, so a bit younger than Piper played it). If you read the play with Sloane being menacing and manipulative from the beginning, that ending - Sloane as victim getting what's coming to him - is actually impossible. Sloane just wants to get away with the murder and live a comfy life; he doesn't care how it's done. In that final scene, Sloane calms down as soon as the deal is in the air and leaves Ed and Kath to work out the details.

Things too like the murder of Kemp - Orton is very specific about the violence, Sloane only kicks Kemp three or four times, and very deliberately (and obviously, fatally), whereas it was played as a kind of panicked loss of control, with Sloane panting and frightened afterwards. I don't read it like that at all: I think Sloane enjoys the murder, just as he enjoys his sexual power. There's a lot of perversity in this play which was just fudged.

Anonymous said...

Alison,

As a regular reader of both yours and Chris Boyd, i can safely say that this is the first time I agree with Chris Boyd. I have seen Sloane, and not only did I thoroughly enjoy it, I was appropriatly horrified. I think that Simon Phillips has successfully hit the nail on the head! Ben Geurens is a convincing Sloane, with a very strong Orton influence, Piper is highly entertaining and yet disturbing and Bob Hornery gives a very moving performance. The only glimpse I saw of what you mentioned in your review is in Amanda Muggletons performance at times. And as for smoking on stage....it is illegal in victoria as the theatre is seen as an enclosed enviroment, they are currently taking into consideration the use of herbals.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Anon. We'll have to agree to disagree, I expect: different strokes for different folks and all that. I think I like my Orton straight. John Lahr has the same take on the play as I do, fwiw.

So smoking is illegal? Is that right? I know VicHealth stipulates with its sponsorship that smoking or other drug use not be referred to in any way, which is fair enough given its brief. But it gets a little surreal to me: the new Puritanism, that seeks to change reality by denying it. I'm not sure that's the right way to go about it. And there's a point where it's plain silly.

Avi said...

So I went and saw it last night - student tickets were $16 - and I have to agree with you here Alison. A very dull start to 2007.

You're absolutely right when you say that Geurens' Sloane isn't nearly manipulative enough. I also think he lacked, for the most part, the charm and charisma to justify winning Kath and Ed over so completely.

We didn't see enough tragedy in Muggleton's Kath. There is something so utterly heartbreaking about her overwhelming need to protect and to be protected, but I don't think that was as evident as it should've been.

I really didn't like Piper's Ed. I thought he was the weakest of the four. The stuffy mannerisms and strange quirks irked me throughout the entire show. (As did the cigarette thing - ugh!) I thought, though, Kemp was very well portrayed by Bob Hornery.

Overall a particularly bland start to 2007's season of "Theatre for Old People".

Chris Boyd said...

"Theatre for Old People"

Youch! :)

I took my cue on how to approach this production from David Chesworth's music... which, it must be said, has pissed off an awful lot of people!

It's a viral little tune, a mix of My Three Sons and Number 96 with (dare I say it) the opening riff from A Method by TV On The Radio.

I accept that SP's production is against the grain, but let's not get all FR Leavis over this! It is, for me, a legit way of staging the play in the 21st century to an older (and far far wiser, and far far less shockable) audience.

The violence was badly handled. No surprise there. And your point about it being a frenzied accident rather than a vicious and deliberate attack is well made.

But I'm with Howard Loxton (and Trevor Griffiths) who writes that Sloan "thinks he has captivated a woman and her brother into giving him a cushy life but finds the tables turned and himself trapped as their sexual toy." [my emphasis]

I especially liked Bob Hornery, who plays a kind of Steptoe character without letting the portrayal slip into brute farce. There's an extraordinary gravity in his acting.

I even thought SP's decision to leave Sloane 'hollow' -- a figment of the imaginations of those around him -- was an exciting one. (Especially given that Sloane 'is' Orton.)

In my Herald Sun review, I contrasted this approach with the one you find in so many modern comedies, where there's only one real character in a play and everyone else is a figment of his (usually they're male) imagination.

Think of the characters around Garry McDonald in Tony McNamara's play The Give and Take.

I was wary when I approached the play. I was expecting the worst, I confess. But I left content. (God, not the 'C' word!!)

Alison Croggon said...

FR Leavis!!! O how unkind!

You make your argument well, Mr Boyd. But how does it make the play more interesting for a post-shock audience to camp it up and make it less edgy and less dark? Wouldn't it make more sense just to go for it?

I think Mr Griffiths is mistaken too. I suppose it all hinges on how one sees the "deal" and where the power lies; obviously Sloane is blackmailed, but he gets something for himself too. I think the power-relations ought to be a whole lot more ambiguous, which is my whole argument with the production. To interpret it this way makes it a much less interesting play, much more assimilable.

And it really does overlook the Pinter influences - I actually get lines from this play slightly mixed up with The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, and there's no doubt that Orton was then deeply influenced by Pinter, although even then he was doing his own thing. Perhaps Griffiths, another playwright who owes a debt to Pinter, couldn't take Pinter being used with such gayness, an inability to see it as anything but camp (lower case)? I think Orton is hinting at all that leatherclad cottaging low-rent world, something that ties sexual excitement to danger. Nothing of that there. I just keep returning to the idea of Malcolm McDowell as the ideal Sloane: that beautiful, amoral, intelligent face, that charged sexual presence...

Chris Boyd said...

Yeah, orright. I'd like to see that play too. Who to direct? Schlusser? Reid? No... I know. Gale Edwards.

God, I wish you had seen her production of Festen. It was ferocious. Rampant. Thrilling. 'Gale'-force, even! A complete and hermetic world.

The main difference between MTC and STC at the moment is that the MTC produce plays -- and I was conscious that I was watching a 'play' being 'directed' while I was watching Entertaining Mr Sloane -- the STC makes theatre.

Alison Croggon said...

That reminds me of a useful distinction Chris Goode (Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire) made between playwrights and writers for the theatre.

You'd know, Chris: I was wondering the other night whether the MTC had ever produced Pinter? I can't remember a production, but I can't imagine that they haven't.

Abe Pogos said...

Hi Alison,

I can remember a couple of Pinter productions at the MTC, both I think directed by Graeme Blundell and both done in the mid-eighties. One was The Caretaker, and the other was an evening of one act plays including A Kind of Alaska, One for the Road and Victoria Station (I think). I thought Blundell proved himself a very polished interpreter of Pinter on both occasions and The Caretaker would rate as one of the best MTC shows I've seen.

Another would be Simon Phillip's 1984 production of What the Butler Saw so it's a bit of a disappointment if he's screwed up this time round.

In regard to the comparisons you make with Orton and Pinter, Orton was very open in acknowledging his debt to Pinter in his early plays, but he does claim some credit for The Homecoming in his diaries. On p 238 he says:

"The Homecoming couldn't have been written without Sloane. And, you know, in a way the second act—although I admire it very much—isn't true. Harold, I'm sure, would never share anyone sexually. I would. And so Sloane springs from the way I think. The Homecoming doesn't spring from the way Harold thinks."

I don't know how reliable Orton's observations are but I think they're interesting nonetheless.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Abe. I would have been astonished had there been none. I remember that production of What The Butler Saw; it was one of the reasons I was so disappointed with this one. Phillips can do "serious light" extremely well, I think; I still remember his production of The Importance of Being Earnest, with Frank Thring and Geoffrey Rush (or am I making Geoffrey Rush up?) and I loved Cyrano de Bergerac. And a rather lovely production of The Seagull a few years ago. Etc.

Chris Boyd said...

In those days, it wasn't an authentic SP production unless it had a food fight.

Your memory serves!

Rush, in fact, proposed to his new wife (Jane Menelaus played Gwendolyn) several times a week for about six months in 1989.

Algernon was Richard Piper, the Canon was Bob Hornery. Lady Bracknell was Ruth Cracknell. Mmmm! Helen Buday and Monica Maughan were in it too.

When it came back, maybe two years later, Gordon Chater replaced Frank Thring. And Andrew Tighe (I think) replaced Richard Piper.

Chris Boyd said...

P.S. The Caretaker must have been 1986. (They did Shaw's Heartbreak House that year, BTW.)

Alison Croggon said...

I saw that Heartbreak House, but somehow missed The Caretaker. My, it's all coming back...I really can't get fond of Shaw. I try, I do try, but he just doesn't do it for me.

George Hunka said...

I saw a fine production of Major Barbara this year done by the 2-Headed Calf company here in NY, the best Shaw I've seen probably because very ... well, unShavian, you wouldn't think Shaw lent himself to kabuki, but there you are. And I'm no great fan of Shaw myself.

They're threatening a Homecoming on Broadway here in New York with Liev Schreiber later this season (I'll believe it when I see it; it's already been postponed once). There was, however, a fine Caretaker a few seasons ago with Patrick Stewart as Davies. Keep the "Make it ... so" jokes to a minimum, please.

Abe Pogos said...

Alison...Slight correction to my previous comments. The MTC production of What the Butler Saw was actually in 1987.

Also, I'd forgotten that The MTC staged Betrayal as recently as 2001. As much as I revere Pinter I couldn't bring myself to see it when they announced that Sigrid Thornton (a much loved Aussie TV actor for those who don't know) had the female lead. What struck me as an atrocious piece of (mis)casting did add some extra resonance to the theme of the play.

Chris, did you see it by any chance?

George, I'd certainly pay to see Liev Schreiber in The Homecoming.

Alison Croggon said...

Wow, that's worse than Jason Donovan in Festen. At least he can act a bit...I just don't understand the Siggy phenomenon. Come to think of it, there are a lot of things I find puzzling about this world. But yes, Leiv Schreiber would be something.

Chris Boyd said...

Thanks to that "atrocious piece of (mis)casting" the MTC's Betrayal had a couple of season extensions.

But, guys, go easy on Siggy. (She's a good chick!) Funnily enough, that play was her stage debut.

I saw the production at the very end of the run. She was bloody impressive actually. Almost embarrassingly present. Really there as an actor. I can still picture her scuttling across the bed like a passionate schoolgirl.

It was a fairly soapy reading, I guess, but dark. (Richard Piper played the other man... talk about ubiquitous!)

And, trivia nuts, one of the Cortese boys was in the play.

Oh, and George, I've actually touched Patrick Stewart. (heh) (We bitched about Ken Doll's [then] new film of Hamlet... God, what's his name? Mr Emma Thompson?)

Abe Pogos said...

HI Chris,

thanks for your mini review.

My understanding is that the MTC season was sold out before Sigrid Thornton set foot on stage so the fact that there were extensions may have been more indicative of good marketing than artistic achievement. And you must know lots of examples where star casting has created theatrical hits at the expense of good theatre. Of course I can't argue that's what happened on this occasion as I never saw the production, but—and no disrespect intended— I'd want a second, third, fourth and fifth opinion before I could believe that she was as good as you claim.

But if she did rise to the occasion then good on her. (I have a friend who knows Sigrid well and apparently she is "a good chick".)

Jodi G said...

Hi,

Am I right in thinking that Jenny Kemp directed 'The Lover' for the MTC some time reasonably recently? David Tred and Melita J were in it - and I think it was a double bill with another Pinter - can't remember which one. Bruce Myles directed. Nothing much has stayed with me - tragically just that there were polystyrene faux classical Greek fragments involved in the set...and a rather ill advised blue frock at one point. There's a review to conjure with...

Kim W. said...

You're right jodi g.

The other play was The Collection. (I found this info on Harold Pinter's website.)

I never saw them but it sounds like I didn't miss anything.

Theatre Queen said...

"I never saw them but it sounds like I didn't miss anything. "

Pairing David Tredenick with Melita Jurisic and you're saying that you didn't miss anything?

Okay each to his/her/its own but that comment borders on the objectively delinquent.

TQ

kim w. said...

TQ

I made the "sounds like I didn't miss anything" remark based on jodi g's observations, especially her "nothing much has stayed with me" comment.

I've seen David and Melita's work many times over the years. Both are capable of reaching great heights but frankly, Melita is maddeningly inconsistent and on balance I've seen her do more bad work than good.

Also, Bruce Myles directed half the program. I admire him as an actor but I don't like him as a director. The last thing of his I saw was the MTC production of Closer. It was a travesty. (He also did a Chekov which has stayed with me for all the wrong reasons.)

Perhaps I'm wrong and I did miss a great show, but my comment was well considered, based on a history of having seen the work of the artists concerned, the work of the company, the work of the directors, and the eye witness testimony of someone who was there. So I reject your assertion that I was being "objectively delinquent".

Having said that, I've always enjoyed your contributions to this blog TQ, and it's great to see you've started one of your own.

Anonymous said...

Hi,

Didn't mean to start a spat - or rather contribute to one. Straining my memory, I remember David Tred being excellent. I agree with Kim that Melita Jurisic is inconsistent - and this wasn't one of her better moments - mannered and histrionic in place of the edgy territory she usually walks so very well. It seemed a strangely non-Pinter night in the theatre. And I also agree with Kim about Bruce Myles' production of Closer - though I blame the play. What a steaming pile of shite that was.

Jodi G

Alison Croggon said...

Well, it's a relief to know that Pinter has been done, even if I seem, with Machiavellian cunning, to have missed every production. (There is a very long blank spot in my Melbourne theatre experience). Melita J is one of those talents, I agree, who is either pure genius - I will never forget her Sonia in an MTC Uncle Vanya many years ago - or, well, something else. Rather like Robert Menzies, I think, who in the right roles is one of the best actors I've ever seen.

My personal would-love-to-see is Ashes to Ashes, though it would be so very easy to fuck it up; a very difficult play, I expect, but probably one of my fave Pinter plays ever. I wonder if that's been done here at all?

Theatre Queen said...

Dear Kim and Jodi

Apologies to both of you. I was being cheeky and light hearted. Its this keyboard I'm using, it has the tendancy of making everything I write seem self righteous.

TQ

Kim w. said...

Dear TQ

I'm having similar problems but I blame my mouse. It makes me sound far mor indignant than I actually feel. I think I quite enjoyed having a bit of a rant so I'm sorry if I made you feel the need to apologise. (And anyway, it's hard to feel genuine anger at someone called Theatre Queen.)

Thanks Jodi for more detail on that Pinter double bill which makes me even more glad I missed it.

And Alison, yes, Ashes to Ashes is a great play and probably the best thing Pinter wrote in the last twenty years. It would be nice to see someone do it justice.

Jodi G said...

I can't reveal my sources, but I was told that the MTC wanted to produce Ashes to Ashes when they did the aforementioned double bill - but felt it wasn't long enough to sustain an evening on its own. And the Pinter camp didn't want it on a double bill with older work. I agree, it's a beautiful play.

And yes, the problem of tone on the internet - short of nasty adverbs or actions in brackets, it's easy to misunderstand. Worse than bloody stage directions....

benjamin said...

There was a pretty good production of Ashes to Ashes in the Downstairs theatre at Belvoir St a few years ago. Max Cullen and Liz Chance (who also produced) acting. Although less than an hour long, apparently they weren't permitted to double with it another show.

It was great seeing it in a very small room, not sure if MTC would do it justice in any of their spaces.

Benjamin