When Joe Orton's second major play, Loot, premiered 50 years ago, it ran afoul of the Lord Chamberlain's office on two fronts. First, London's theatrical censor insisted that Orton's more overt references to the sexual relationship between best mates and hapless thieves Hal and Dennis be removed, or else coded in layers of subtext. Second, the playwright's stipulation in the script that the corpse at the centre of the plot's farcical antics be played by a real actor was vetoed. A dummy had to be substituted.
Both of these cuts have been restored in a 50th anniversary production of the play that is currently running at the Park Theatre in the Finsbury Park neighbourhood of North London. Assuredly directed by Michael Fentiman, this staging is the first to be based on Orton's original, uncensored script, recently rediscovered, and given the go-ahead by Orton's sister and his estate. Orton's scabrous wit and savage satirizing of social mores remain as fresh and breathtakingly funny as ever--notwithstanding the odd racist and misogynistic joke that might offend the politically correct. Luckily for us, Orton is so far from being a PC playwright as to make comedic offense into a blunt force weapon. Not for him the smooth sliding in of the skewering dagger alongside indulgently mocking Wildean aphorisms; Orton serves up his comic barbs the way the Greeks did--lewd and in yer face. I realize I'm mixing a lot of different theatrical references in that last sentence, but as Fentiman writes in his program note, Orton's dramatic knowledge and reading were prodigious, as is his own influence on a subsequent generation of taboo-smashing British playwrights.
For Orton, whose entire writerly project might be summed up as an epic battle to demolish the binary between the sacred and the profane (this was someone who went to prison, remember, for defacing library books), taboos are made to be smashed. And in Loot we see them come down in spades. Defiling a corpse: check. Hiding stolen money in a coffin: check. Lampooning Catholic piety and blind faith in the absolving power of confession: check. Openly celebrating buggery and getting away with murder: check and check.
But what elevates Orton beyond being a playwright who merely wishes to shock (in addition, that is, to his truly astonishing command of language) is that his satire is expressly political. Indeed, the biggest taboo to be smashed in Loot has to do with our liberal democratic belief in--and willful adherence to--the benignly just execution of the law. Thus, the most menacing character in the play is not the murdering Black Widow of a nurse, Fay (an excellent Sinead Matthews), nor the larcenous lovers Hal and Dennis (Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba, both also terrific), but the incognito detective, Truscott (Christopher Fulford, in a toweringly funny performance). Entering the McLeavy residence under the guise of a city water inspector in order to avoid the inconvenience of needing a search warrant, by the end of the play he ends up colluding with the criminals, taking a cut of their "loot," and sending an innocent man, the grieving Mr. McLeavy (Ian Redford, moving from befuddlement to outrage and back again with great aplomb), to jail. That this also enables the closing tableau of this production of the play, in which Hal and Dennis kiss passionately, while simultaneously each rubbing a breast of the imperiously self-satisfied surrogate mummy figure Fay, still clutching her rosary, is a fittingly queer victory for a playwright whose own untimely death coincided with the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain.
This production, then, is a double anniversary, and on both the level of hilarious physical comedy (major kudos on that front to Anah Ruddin as the put-upon corpse) and savage political commentary, it lives up to the weight of expectations. Added bonus at the performance we attended: the legendary Tom Stoppard was in the audience. He was laughing uproariously. If that's not an imprimatur, I don't know what is.