“YOU’RE A constant source of amazement, boy, a never ending tale of infamy. I’d hardly credit it. A kid of your age. Joy-riding in an expensive car, a woman pregnant. My word, you’re unforgivable.”
A whiff of danger surrounds a young wide-boy called Sloane, and it appals and fascinates successful businessman, Ed, who returns home to find him lounging in the house he shares with his sister Kath and their father Kemp.
Kath, a lonely, middle-aged woman, has taken Sloane as a lodger, seeing him as a source of sexual thrills and an outlet for thwarted maternal instincts. Sloane sees the vanities and weaknesses of the sibling pair as ripe for exploitation and his ticket to Easy Street. Only Kemp knows Sloane’s dark secret. Only he stands in the way.
This is Entertaining Mr Sloane, Joe Orton’s blackly-comic ménage à trois, where sibling rivalries become a battle of wills and sexual desire, before morphing into an amoral alliance for exploitative ends. It is Orton’s most famous work and perhaps his greatest exploration of his view that “people are profoundly bad but irresistibly funny.”
London Classic Theatre is bringing Entertaining Mr Sloane to the Town Hall Theatre on Saturday March 1 at 8pm and it is a rare opportunity to see the work of the late, unquestionably great, English comic dramatist.
After years of writing unpublished novels in a London bedsit, 1964’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, following on from the BBC radio play The Ruffian On The Stairs, was Orton’s first major success. Overnight it made him a household name and the exciting new face of British theatre, eventually leading to a request from Brian Epstein to write a film script for The Beatles.
His black farces and daring exploration of sexuality made Orton hugely popular and extremely controversial, but his career was tragically ended in 1967 when he was beaten to death by his jealous and unstable boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell, who then took his own life.
‘He isn’t going to give in unless he has to’
In 1964, Britain’s post-war austerity was over, Beatlemania was raging, the Rolling Stones released their debut album, and London was getting ready to swing. This social change is mirrored in Sloane when stiff-upper lipped conservative Ed runs up against the rebellious Sloane, while Kath sees her new lodger as a means to express a sexuality society has demanded she repress.
“It takes us back to that time and that sense of energy there was in sixties’ British society,” Michael Cabot, the director of Entertaining Mr Sloane, and the founder and artistic director of London Classic Theatre tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “Sloane is 20 years old and finding his way in life, and for young people in that time, all bets are off, the rules are there to be broken.”
Michael views Sloane as “someone who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, but he doesn’t know what he wants”.
“There is a studied indifference to Sloane,” he says. “He’s without affectation. He’s trying to get something for nothing and make the best out of the situation. He takes everything from every opportunity that presents itself. He responds to what interests him but he has no sense of community or responsibility. He has no empathy and that feeds into the psychopathic tendency we see later in the play. He has no roots, no loyalties.”
‘Sloane knows Eddie wants him’
At the heart of Sloane is sexuality and how it drives the relationships between Sloane, Ed, and Kath. Sloane is willing to dabble in whatever is the sexual preference of the person opposite him, if he thinks he can benefit from it, but it is the sexuality of Ed that is Sloane’s most daring feature.
Ed is an ex-British Army soldier turned successful businessman, with a place on the boardroom, but who still makes time to enjoy sports and athletic pursuits. He is the epitome of the establishment Englishman.
He is also gay. Sloane enjoys teasing and turning Ed on with his recollections of the sports he played as a youth; while Ed’s own recollections of Kath’s former boyfriend reveal a deep jealousy that she came between their friendship.
In 1964, gay men were not portrayed as embodying the values of machismo and the establishment. It was inconceivable to audiences that a gay man could be such. The only depictions of gay men that were acceptable to mainstream audiences were screaming queens and limp-wristed, effeminate, fops - in other words, gay men as ‘harmless’. Portraying them as ‘manly men’ was too much of a challenge to contemporary views on masculinity.
All this makes Ed the most revolutionary character in the play - if not one of the most significant in British post-war theatre - and the reason Slaone is a significant work of gay literature.
“Ed is fascinating,” says Michael. “There was a bravery in writing a character like Ed. Ed is complex and there is more to him than meets the eye. He is more that the sum of his parts. Orton’s life experiences showed gay men came in all different shapes and sizes.
“Entertaining Mr Sloane was performed before homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967. This was an era when gay men would enter into heterosexual marriages for the sake of appearances. Orton was writing on the cusp of everything changing in Britain and he went, in terms of sexual liberation, farther than anyone else in what he wanted audiences to accept.”
While Ed is clearly “more that the sum of his parts”, the same can be said of Kath. Orton always insisted that Kath be played straightforwardly, as an ordinary woman, and that her sex drive was not to be reduced to ‘nymphomania’. How does this production deal with Kath?
“We have the wonderful Pauline Whitaker who played Kath in 2003 when we originally performed Sloane,” says Michael. “‘Nymphomaniac’ is interesting as that is one of many needs - she needs to be loved, but she equates sex with love, and doesn’t distinguish well between various forms of them, but she is ultimately, not very bright or logical, but not without some degree of wit and cleverness. There are more layers to her.”
Kath shows that cleverness in the climatic third act where she, Sloane, and Ed, engage in a battle of wits to see who will rule the roost by the play’s end.
“The great thing about Entertaining Mr Sloane is that it doesn’t observe any sense of normal roles,” says Michael. “It seems anti-romantic, it doesn’t seek to attach itself to any conventional wisdom. The characters have no sense of morality.”
A brighter light
While Orton would go on to write the more ambitious stage-plays Loot (1966 ) and What the Butler Saw (produced posthumously in 1969 ), a riotous blend of traditional British farce and a tour-de-force of absurdism, Entertaining Mr Sloane remains his most famous, and accessible work.
“It’s 50 years since Entertaining Mr Sloane was first performed and that gap, that silence that followed his death has shone a brighter light on what we are missing,” Michael says. “He was an original comic voice and there are very few successful and enduring comic writers in theatre.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie