REVIEW: Entertaining Mr Sloane | New Theatre, Sydney
What wonderful bookends. On the one hand, Bernhard’s The Histrionic, which digs a grave for Austrian, German and Polish society and culture. And buries the bodies. Alive. A study of absolute power absolutely corrupting. On the other, Joe Orton’s merciless play from 1964, which digs a grave for English hypocrisy. And buries the body. Alive.
If they were alive today, I could kiss them both. I could also kiss Sydney Theatre Company (I’d rather Cate Blanchett than Andrew Upton, I admit) for affording us the chance to see the former. And New Theatre, for the latter. Both are outstandingly good productions, from first impressions onwards. Oh sure, both flag, for a moment or three, here and there, but, as I’m dead certain Bernhard would be the first to point out, perfectionism and the quest for it is absurd.
Marissa Dale-Johnson has completely nailed it with the set, which looks like it took a lot of nails and hours to construct (Nick Catran). It’s olde world, tawdry suburbia to a Royal Doulton teaset and, from the moment the ever-versatile Alice Livingstone (as middle-aged landlady, Kath), steps in, with her strapping, young prospective tenant, we know it’s on (for young and old, as they used to say).
As with Bernhard’s play, from the start, practically everything about the characters on stage is chunderworthy. Kath is anxious to come to some arrangement with the morally, socially and sexually ambivalent orphan and murderer, Mr Sloane. But when her big brother, Ed, comes on the scene, an Arfur Daley-style spiv fond of big-noting his modest success, things become complicated, for this predatory gay man also has designs on Sloane and sets about recruiting him as his chauffeur; just as urban legend would have it Rene Rivkin did, with Gordon Wood. He acquires a uniform for his new Jeeves, which includes leather jeans and cap. Then, on the sidelines, there’s Dadda, who vaguely remembers Sloane and not in a good way.
Orton spared no horses and nor has director, Rosane McNamara, in turning what might otherwise by heavy-handed allusions into explicit, in-our-face confrontations; so, yes, Kath, the middle-aged woman, has changed into a diaphanous negligee and, yes, she has mounted her youthful target, on the settee. This is typical, but only the tip of an iceberg, designed specifically to ruffle the feathers; put the cat amongst the pigeons; insert other colourful phrase of choice. And yes, Ed asserts Sloane would go a lot further in life if he was behind him.
The pretence and self-serving amorality (at best) of Kath, Ed and Sloane is consummate and all three are world’s best practice, Machiavellian gold standard connivers, vying for the crown. They know it about themselves and each other, but British ‘propriety’ prevents them from coming out with it; they must steadfastly maintain the facade. They go further, ironically proclaiming their innocence. Kath’s confession is probably a telling one, however humorously couched, for a lot of Anglo-Saxon (and other) women of a certain age. “I’d the upbringing a nun would envy and that’s the truth. Until I was 15 I was more familiar with Africa than my own body.” As for Sloane, having done away with Dadda in a fit of pique, he pleads with Ed: “You wouldn’t put me away, would you? I’m impressionable. Think what the nick would do to me. I’d pick up criminal connections.”
Livingston is as nuanced and watchable as always. At least equally entertaining is Pete Nettell as Ed. Together, they make a deadly brother-and-sister act. Sure, it might be Slonae who’s the real killer, but they are arch, and devilish in their competitive determination to manipulate. Brynn Loosemore, as Sloane, isn’t quite as solid or consistent in his performance; looking a little uncertain and uncomfortable, at times and, as a result, not wholly convincing. While (after me) Frank Macnamara is the quintessential grumpy, old man.
That Orton’s play, with its erky-perky characters can still make us laugh, cringe, wince, ooh and aah (though more like aagh!) is testament to how truly shocking it must’ve been to the more stitched-up among Britain’s theatre crowd in the early-to-mid ’60s. It’s no surprise he enjoyed an explosive career, rising to become, in just three short years before his brutal murder (eerily prophesied, in the loosest possible sense, in this play), one of the most important and renowned writers of farce of the last century. This was the work that propelled him, to begin with, from the fringe to mainstream. This was the point, perhaps, at which he went from being derivatively Pinteresque, to originally Ortonesque.
Entertaining Mr Sloane is grandly, gorgeously, sumptuously grotesque and New Theatre’s production is probably about as good as any you’re ever likely to see.
The details: Entertaining Mr Sloane plays the New Theatre until July 14. Tickets on the venue website.