The name Joe Orton may not be familiar to many American theatre fans, but in the mid 1960s he was a rising star in England. Orton was an openly gay man during a time in which homosexuality was actively persecuted by the police. His career was tragically cut short when his partner (Kenneth Halliwell who suffered from severe depression) brutally murdered Orton and then killed himself in 1967. This occurred roughly one month after Orton finished the satirical comedy What the Butler Saw, which would be his final play. It made its debut in London in 1969 and will have a rare performance in America at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.
Directed by Paul Mullins, the cast includes Jeffrey M. Bender, Peter Simon Hilton, John Hutton, Allison Layman, Vanessa Morosco, Robbie Simpson.
“It’s absolutely crazy!” said Peter Simon Hilton, who portrays Dr. Prentice. His actual wife Vanessa Morosco joins him as his wife in the play. “Obviously it’s a farce so it’s very fast moving — doors are opening and shutting. It’s set in a medical psychiatric clinic in England in the late 1960s. It runs at breakneck speed. It has the most extraordinary sort of acceleration to an astonishing end. It never lets you down. It’s incredibly funny and naughty!”
In fact, the play shocked audiences when it was first produced. Now, almost 50 years later, the play unveils the fragile state of truth in the hands of those in power, and the power of truth despite our easy ability to twist it.
“I think one of the things that is surprising about this play is that even though it was written in the late 1960s, it will seem - at moments - incredibly ahead of our time,” said Vanessa Morosco. “It challenges many culture norms.”
“Cultural and societal norms surround sexuality and the medical profession and mental health,” Peter adds. “Even though the situations are all extraordinary and extremely comedic, it still touches upon the establishment and how truth is constantly manipulated in order for people to retain their own authority and power. This is what Joe Orton was so good at. I think it was definitely something Orton was very interested in exploring and in this play he does it through these ludicrous characters in insane situations. But he often asks the questions: ‘What is truth? Who are the guardians of the truth? And what do we do when our authority figures deny the truth?’”
While the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is primarily dedicated to Shakespeare’s canon and works by his fellow playwrights of the day, the company generally includes a surprise or two each season - sometimes recent plays or rarely performed works. This will be the first Joe Orton play produced at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey during the tenure of Bonnie J. Monte as Artistic Director.
“One of the things I think is extraordinary in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s choice for this play is that Joe Orton rarely gets produced in the United States,” said Vanessa. “He’s a great playwright and despite the play obviously written in the English language there is no mistaking that this is a foreign play to American audiences. Having the opportunity to watch it in the United States is rare and special. I think it is a real gift that the company has offered us both as actors and to the audience as well.”
“We recently did a production of Arcadia, which experiences a similar fate of not being produced very often for different reasons,” added Peter. “These are great plays and the fact that we, as the theatre going public in America, don’t get the opportunity to see them very often is rather sad.”
Performing in a play together is nothing new for Peter and Vanessa. This will be their 14th play together, although only the second one to feature them as husband and wife on stage.
“It’s quite exciting to actually be on stage as a married couple playing a married couple - even though the married couple we’re playing on stage is extraordinarily dysfunctional!” said Peter.
“I hope we have a healthier marriage in real life than the one we’ll portray on stage,” replies Vanessa. “Although I will say that our partnership in life as well as our history of working together as performers serves us greatly in playing the couple on stage. Because while we often have a contentious relationship there is great humor that is derived from the way in which we banter together as Dr. and Mrs. Prentice. And, in order to achieve that it requires great partnership between the actors.”
Peter says it requires great trust as well. “We have an innate trust between us because of our life experiences outside of the roles we’re playing,” he explains. “So, it allows both ourselves, the rest of the cast, and the director to know they can put us in extraordinary positions very quickly in the rehearsal process and we will thrive from that and support the piece.”
Other than the rare opportunity to see Joe Orton’s work on stage, Peter believes people will enjoy the play’s witty and biting dialogue — reminiscent of Oscar Wilde - and the way the play remains rather shocking.
“It’s like Benny Hill and Oscar Wilde put together and slapped on to the front pages of the New York Times as the most shocking event that’s ever happened,” said Peter. “It’s an enormous tragedy that surrounds this play having first been performed after Joe Orton was murdered in such a gruesome way by his long time partner and lover. I can imagine that when this was first put on there was enormous joy and elation for being able to do such a great and intricately structured play that was so biting and on the edge. But, at the same time, enormous sadness that the world had lost a great playwright.”
What The Butler Saw is presented September 6 - October 1 at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue in Madison, New Jersey.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.