What The Butler Saw

SOPHIE WILLIAMS is pained by this offensive, dated play.

Cambridge Theatre Corpus Playroom Joe Orton What The Butler Saw

If you were to imagine a world where political correctness did not exist in any way, shape or form, then you would be imagining Britain in 1969, the year that What the Butler Saw was first performed.

Joe Orton’s play is possibly the most offensive – and almost certainly the most dated – play I have seen performed in Cambridge. It’s almost incomprehensible just how many taboo topics are covered over the course of the show. If it’s offensive, it’s in there: sexism, racism, homophobia, paedophilia, incest, drugging women, beating women… Orton’s play runs the gamut of indecent sources of humour. Which was not to my taste. At all. I mean, I was actively offended with each accruing use of the word ‘rape’, which was used almost every five minutes during the first act. The word ‘rape’ found a home in lines such as “He’s been depressed by his failure in commerce. That’s why he took to rape” – said by a character he had tried to rape. Scatter-gun sexism flies everywhere. There are multiple references to golliwogs. It’s almost as if Orton made the conscious decision to include in his play every kind of joke that would eventually become offensive by the twenty-first century. It was like some sort of Carry On Psychiatrist, but more so.

Obviously some people will enjoy this kind of play a lot. People like to be shocked into laughter sometimes. The people sat behind me in the Corpus Playroom certainly enjoyed it; the constant exclamations of “Jesus Christ!” from the bearded man sat directly at my rear (oo-er) provided a rather apt soundtrack to the play. The audience reacted very well to the production but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable.

More rape jokes than was ever thought possible

More rape jokes than was ever thought possible

Part of the pain I felt came from the fact that I thought that many of the actors deserved a better play than this, and I wanted to whisk them away and recast them in a less un-PC comedy. I can’t stress enough how fantastic some of the comedy acting was. In particular, Ralph Wakefield as the seedy yet skittish Dr. Prentice was wonderfully expressive and had excellent comedic timing, and Tom Stuchfield had a relatively small but perfectly performed role as Sergeant Match, one of the least offensive characters and yet one of the strongest performances.

Pete Skidmore was also great as the elderly, mad Dr. Rance, demonstrating some highly-audience-pleasing vocal gymnastics and bizarre pronunciation, though after a while – when the play had dragged on far too long –  even the strong performances couldn’t keep me interested or make me care about what happens to these characters. Pretty much all of them are terrible people. Nisha Emich had the thankless role of Geraldine, the only decent person of the play, but since she was the almost-raped, several-times-stripped-and-drugged perpetual (yet often smiling) victim perhaps it was inevitable that I found her performance to uncomfortable to appreciate. But the cast as a whole was strong. Highly impressive, even. It’s just a shame about the play.