My kind of role…
In Orton’s dark farce, staged uncut for the first time, Anah Ruddin plays the recently deceased Mrs McLeavy whose body is extravagantly manhandled. She describes the stiff challenges of the role.
From the necrophilia to the suggestion Christ was framed, the playwright’s most dangerous work – performed without the censor’s cuts for the first time – shows Orton wasn’t just out to shock.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Joe Orton’s death, this revival of his most famous play restores the cuts originally insisted upon by the stage censor, the Lord Chamberlain. The result not only sharpens an already subversive text but yields a first-rate production by Michael Fentiman that reminds us of the serious intent behind Orton’s drollery. This, you might say, is dangerous farce. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/aug/24/loot-review-joe-orton-park-theatre-london
On 9 August 1967, the playwright Joe Orton was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in their Islington flat. The following day, Guardian theatre critic Philip Hope-Wallace wrote, “Joe Orton had an irreverent eye and a splendid ear for comic dialogue. It was ruthless, mordant, epigrammatic, and formal in a way which caused people to make comparisons to Oscar Wilde.”
Being asked to write the rules of farce is akin to being asked to describe the rules of life – where do you start and what do you leave out? However, before laying bare my formula, I would say that “farce” covers a wide area. There would seem to be a point at which comedy becomes farce and having become farce it then flows into several farcical tributaries. Mine is just one of them.
In the beginning there is the plot. I’m not searching for a “comedy” plot or a “funny” storyline. I’m searching for something potentially tragic. Farce is more akin to tragedy than it is to comedy.
In my play Run for Your Wife, the hero is a bigamist. This situation in real life is an absolute tragedy for those finding themselves involved in it. My play doesn’t dwell on the tragedy, but the audience instinctively understands what is at stake.
In Out of Order, a Cabinet minister’s illicit evening in a London hotel is brought to an abrupt halt when he and the young lady discover a dead body in the bedroom. The Government could fall and so he embarks on a cover-up which risks both his marriage and his political future. In real life – as politicians know – this situation brings tragedy. In Out of Order, it also brings laughter – because the audience know what is at stake for the characters in the play.
The characters must be truthful and recognisable. Again this is why the audience laughs. The characters are believable – it is the situations that are slightly out of the ordinary. Ordinary people who are out of their depth in a predicament which is beyond their control and they are unable to contain. Tragedy again.
The willingness to rewrite is essential. My farces are pure concoctions. I never get it exactly right the first time. The original script is comparable to a middle-of-the-range Ford motor car. By the time it appears on the West End stage it must have acquired the precision, the elegance and the comfort of a Rolls-Royce.
I achieve this by having a play reading early on. Then I take the play back to the drawing-board and huge areas are then restructured, rewritten and generally reshaped. Characters may be added or removed in order to serve the requirements of the play. The play will get more and more tryouts, until I know it’s as perfect as it can be.
The right casting is vital. Because of the laughter my kind of play evokes, it is sometimes thought that comedians serve farce well. Invariably disaster! Farce needs actors who can play tragedy – and that is only the first requirement. They must also have the technique, the stamina, the precision and the dexterity that farce demands.
And, almost above all, they must have a generosity of spirit. Farce is teamwork. There is no standing behind beautiful monologues. It’s mundane language. The characters aren’t standing centre-stage, spotlit, intellectualising about their predicament. They’re rushing about dealing with it.
A rule personal to me is “real time”. The two hours spent in the theatre are two hours in the existence of the characters in the play. No passage of time between Acts 1 and 2. When the curtain rises on the second act, the characters are exactly how we left them at the end of act one, and the action continues. This imposes huge demands on the playwright. Only one setting and two hours of continuous drama/laughter.
Finally, never underestimate the intelligence of your audience. I believe that the audience like to work for their laughter.
‘Most of life is farce. Whoever said history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce was right.’
Playwright and novelist, John Mortimer – quoted by Michael Arditti here