I would be an exaggeration to say that seeing Loot, or any Joe Orton play, was on my ‘bucket list’ but I have been looking forward to it for a very long time.
I first became aware of Orton when I saw Stephen Frears’ 1987 film, Prick Up Your Ears. With a screenplay by Alan Bennett, based on John Lahr’s book, the film chronicles Orton’s rise to success as a playwright in 1960’s London and his murder at the hands of his long-time lover, Kenneth Halliwell. The film is gritty and edgy and came into my life at a time when I was particularly open to it. That was a least 25 years ago.
After first seeing Prick Up Your Ears, I’ve seen it several times since, I sought out as much information on Orton as I could find. I read Lahr’s book, Orton’s posthumously published diaries (edited by Lahr), and all of his plays; there are only seven. I’ve seen dvds of Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane but had never seen an Orton play on the stage.
Tucson’s Live Theatre Workshop’s production of Loot was very good. The production didn’t shy away from displaying the dark content but lost none of the comedy, The acting was spot-on; especially the young actor playing the role of Inspector Truscott. He was fully invested in a character that is written in a hyper-dramatic style but never winked at the audience; not even when delivering Orton’s line; “this had better go no further than these three walls“; an acknowledgement of the imaginary ‘4th wall’ that exists between the world of the play and the world of the audience. Even the accents were good. I am not sure how authentically they recreated the dialect of working-class, northern England but the accents were consistent and effective.
The only area in which this production struggled was in the staging. They did an admirable job with the limitations of the space but it is a tough show for their small performance space. Even with seating on three sides the venue only seats about 70. The action requires a traditional ‘box set’ and there must be sufficient room to move around a corpse and a coffin, often independently of each other, with farce-like speed and frequency. There are multiple doors. It was tight. Add to that, the low ceiling and the production felt crowded. Keeping the set relatively free of extraneous decorations what the right choice given the limits of the space but it sacrifices some of the verisimilitude of a working class home.
I was surprised the play did not feel dated. Certainly it is not as shocking as it must have seemed when it premiered 50 years ago but the themes of ironic morality and abuse of power are still relevant. Indeed, the theme of abusive of authority by the police seems pulled from today’s headlines. Orton prefaced Loot with an epigraph by GB Shaw, a quotation from Shaw’s play Misalliance;
“Anarchism is a game at which the police can beat you…”.
One can’t live in Arizona in the early 21st century without knowing the truth of that.
Joe Orton died in 1967, the victim of his lover’s murder-suicide. From the publication of this first play until his death, his career spanned only about four years.
As a playwright, Orton was ahead of his time in many ways, some positive, some negative. His plays are sharp and darkly funny. They are challenging of authority and the status quo and they revel in flouting conventions of all sorts.
At the same time, Orton was an egoist and shameless in his self-promotion. His first play. The Ruffian on the Stair, was an adaptation of an unpublished novel called The Boy Hairdresser which he’d written in collaboration with Halliwell. Halliwell is not credited on the play. Orton wrote letters to the editors of newspapers, using fictitious names, both criticizing and defending his plays, just to stir controversy. He began keeping a diary, which he subtitled “Diary of a Somebody” after the success of Loot with the intention of publishing it. He included more details of his sex life than could have been legally published in the UK at the time with an eye toward making it scandalous. Were Orton alive and working today I think he would have a ‘reality television’ program. As John Lahr writes in his introduction to Joe Orton: The Complete Plays;
“There’s no point in being a rebel without applause.”