An absorbing picture of minds in decay

Editor Jon Sutton reviews What the Butler Saw at Curve Theatre in Leicester.

Opening night in Leicester, home city of playwright Joe Orton (and, of course, the British Psychological Society), with the audience filtering into Curve Theatre through Orton Square. We had come to see his final play, which premiered in 1969 two years after his murder.

A year earlier, in a lesser-known precursor to David Rosenhan’s famous ‘On being sane in insane places’ experiment, psychotherapist Maurice Temerlin had split 25 psychiatrists into two groups and had them listen to an actor portraying a character of normal mental health. One group was told that the actor ‘was a very interesting man because he looked neurotic, but actually was quite psychotic’ while the other was told nothing. Sixty per cent of the former group diagnosed psychoses, most often schizophrenia, while none of the control group did so. 

The studies come to mind throughout this breakneck farce, revolving around the clumsy seduction attempt from frustrated psychiatrist Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound). This quickly unravels on the intervention of Mrs Prentice (Catherine Russell) and assessor Dr Rance (Jasper Britton), who arrives from HM Government, ‘your immediate superiors in madness’. Confirmation bias and double bind communication are running themes: Dr Rance shoehorns everything he sees into his pre-existing theories, blithely observing that ‘civilisations have been founded on theories that refuse to observe facts’.

Geraldine Barclay (Dakota Blue Richards), the object of Dr Prentice’s seduction attempt – and, along with Sergeant Match (Ravi Aujla), the only truly sane character in the ‘madhouse’ – soon finds that the vehemence of her denials is taken as ‘proof positive’ of insanity. ‘She may mean yes when she says no’, Dr Rance advises, and I suspect this remains the experience of many with mental health issues. Orton once wrote ‘With insanity, as with vomit, it is the passerby who receives the inconvenience’, and here all his characters are caught in a torrent from a sick society.

One aspect of the script which may have changed since the 60s is the idea of the ‘superstar psychiatrist’ (or psychologist for that matter). Dr Rance longs for ‘remarkable lunatics’, since ‘other people’s misery puts money in the purse’. ‘These final chapters will be lavishly illustrated’ he exclaims, despite earlier claiming to wish that ‘more scientists would keep their ideas to themselves’. Perhaps more do these days, and you rarely see published collections of case studies (although I highly recommend 1996's Method in Madness). Nobody wants to see mental health professionals twisting human experience for their own selfish gains, but there’s a lot to be said for a case study, an ‘absorbing picture of the mind in decay’. 

Hound admitted to the Leicester Mercury that the play is ‘choreographed to within an inch of its life’, and I must admit it made me thankful for the way tastes in comedy seem to have changed in recent years. I’m a fan of leaving space to allow the audience to fill in their own punchline, the knowing glance to camera, and again by Hound’s own admission this production is ‘so packed with clever lines that you can't lean into them all or you lose the momentum’. Hound is a fine comic actor so this seems a bit of a waste… he can wring a lot out of a foot swivel or a weary slug of whisky, but he rarely gets a pause for comic breath here.

The humour is black and taboo, challenging the audience to laugh at domestic violence, incest and rape. Orton uses discomfort as his tool, his own disgust at ‘the old whore society’ evident. It’s interesting to ponder how these themes went down when the play first aired, and whether a society which has changed is now changing back. Orton’s fluid treatment of sexuality and gender, through Prentice, Barclay and Nicholas Beckett (Jack Holden), has (thankfully) lost some of its power to shock in the 21st century. But his commentary on the crazed corruption of power surely remains as topical a warning as ever.

- What the Butler Saw runs at Curve Theatre until 18 March. 

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