British playwright Joe Orton would be just 80 today – if he hadn’t been hammered to death by his lover on an August day in 1967.
It may be foolish and romantic to ascribe prescience to those who die young and under tragic circumstances, but there’s still something chilling about how ahead of his time Orton seems now. The playwright who grew up poor and gay certainly saw his society much more clearly than most of his contemporaries did – as if he were looking back on it from 50 years on, but without having ever lost the unforgiving anger of youth.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Orton’s 1964 comedy currently getting an uneven but worthwhile production at Soulpepper, still feels dangerous, provoking the frightening but fun feeling of unease that comes from hearing the unspeakable spoken.
Sloane (David Beazely) is a handsome, laconic drifter taken in as a lodger by Kath (Fiona Reid), a sexually frustrated, middle-aged landlady who lives beside a garbage dump. Ed (Stuart Hughes), Kath’s brother and an ostensibly respectable businessman, initially tries to have the suspicious Sloane ejected, but he too develops a sexual fascination with the young man and hires him as a chauffeur. Only Kath and Ed’s elderly and impotent father, Kemp (Michael Simpson), seems to recognize the genuine threat he poses.
There’s no escaping the debt this elliptical play owes to Harold Pinter’s early work, especially The Caretaker. Orton wouldn’t fully find his own form and style until the unhinged farce of Loot (which Soulpepper so memorably mounted in 2009).
Still, the younger playwright’s vicious satirical sense of a society he saw as essentially two-faced – clarified after a stint in jail for defacing library books – is already fully on display in Entertaining Mr. Sloane, a play critic John Lahr has called “the first to dramatize the psychopathic style of the sixties – that ruthless, restless, single-minded pursuit of satisfaction.”
Now more than ever, really, it acts as a corrective to mythical, rock-focused pop-culture depictions of that swinging decade – the dark underbelly of which is only really beginning to be discussed openly, as in the posthumous revelations of sexual abuse perpetrated by Top of the Pops presenter Jimmy Savile.
Sloane – whose slack-jawed swagger Beazely captures with style – is ostensibly the loose cannon in the show, capable of murder and probably already guilty of it. But, without giving too much away, he only has a limited amount of power, while those who seek to give the poor youth shelter and work hold the real cards – and their charity is deeply motivated by sexual self-interest.
Ed, played with beady eyes and a twitchy sleaziness by Hughes, lets the subtext out of the bag in one memorable speech.
“Why am I interested in your welfare? Why do thinking men everywhere show young boys the straight and narrow? Flash chequebooks when delinquency is mentioned? Support the Scout movement? Principles, boy, bleeding principles. And don’t you dare say otherwise or you’ll land in serious trouble.”
This passage is particularly appalling in light of all the abuse scandals that have come to light at institutions from the BBC to Canada’s residential schools to the Catholic Church. Orton saw what we still have trouble acknowledging today: The young and marginalized often end up exploited by those who claim to have their best interests at heart.
Healy’s production only intermittently does Orton’s three-act play justice. It suffers from being staged in the round, preventing us from seeing certain characters’ reactions and making several violent moments also impossible to stage with any realism. Performing it with only one intermission instead of two, meanwhile, makes it feel long and lopsided.
Problems with pacing aside, Healy does elicit interesting performances from his cast – notably, a very nervy one from Reid, who straddles Sloane in a see-through camisole and thong in the first act. Hughes’ performance is also enjoyably stylized, even if it ends up sounding the same note too often. Despite a few stumbles, it’s still an entertaining Mr. Sloane.