LOOT by Joe Orton, directed by Jim Warren, with Oliver Dennis, Nicole Underhay, and Matthew Edison. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill). Now in previews, opens June 18 and runs to August 1, various evenings 7:30 pm, some matinees 1:30 pm. $28-$68. soulpepper.ca, 416-866-8666. See listing.
British playwright Joe Orton was hardcore.
Not only was his scandalous life in step with his controversial art, but he also died at the peak of his success under circumstances just as bizarre and outrageous as any comedy he ever put onstage.
"Most of his characters are sociopaths," notes Jim Warren, the director of Soulpepper's revival of Loot, the most macabre farce of all Orton's works.
"He lived what he wrote, and as a consequence he was murdered."
In 1967, Orton's roommate, muse and lover, Kenneth Halliwell, bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and then committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates. The Orton-esque twist was that Halliwell died first, leaving Orton to outlive his own murderer by a few hours.
Only four years earlier - after a brief stint in prison for defacing library books - Orton had risen to fame for his cage-rattling black comedies that flagrantly mocked Britain's repressive social values.
Orton used comedy and farce as a weapon, says Warren, on the phone during a rehearsal break.
"That's what makes him so unique compared to the other ‘angry young men' writing in Britain in the 60s. He was challenging middle-class mores and trying to expose corruption in authority figures [in institutions] like Scotland Yard and the Roman Catholic Church. They all profess to be upright citizens, but Orton shows them to be more hypocritical than the criminals in the play."
Loot finds friends Hal (Matthew Edison) and Dennis (Jonathan Watton) engaged in a grisly scheme involving robbing a bank and then stashing the cash in the coffin of Hal's recently deceased mother. In typical farcical fashion, things quickly unravel as the pair try creatively to conceal the corpse while attempting to thwart the bumbling police.
"He attacks a lot of sacred cows," says Warren, "and as a result the play is less earnest and more fantastic than your typical farce."
Most people remember Orton for What The Butler Saw and Entertaining Mr Sloane, but Warren favours Loot.
"It's my favourite of his plays because it's dirtier and angrier," he laughs. "In Butler he perfected the craft of farce action, but it's not as rough around the edges or as vicious as Loot. And the comedy in Sloane feels dated now."
As a director, Warren's good at handling dark humour. Last summer he helmed Soulpepper's hilarious double bill of The Real Inspector Hound and Black Comedy. He knows that shocking an audience is critical for the true Orton experience - and he's confident that Loot still has the barbs to do that.
"Orton actively wanted to outrage people. He felt that if he didn't offend somebody in the audience, then he wasn't doing his job."
Staying true to Orton's essence did present Warren with a unique problem.
"The biggest challenge is to balance the right tone of attack. I don't want it ever to be too campy or too silly, because it's not as cut and dried as a regular farce. That said, it can't be so earnest or aggressive that we lose the crazy lightness either."
There are plenty of challenges for the cast, too, not the least of which is Orton's erudite dialogue and frantic pacing.
"Loot has a very challenging style for the actors," he says. "It bounces in and out of farce at breakneck speed and requires extreme verbal agility.
"I love comedians and comic writers who come from a place of anger," he adds. "I always find them the funniest."