Monday, 9 November 2009


I have written some on Joe Orton, have read his work and just about everything written on it, have seen a number of fine revivals of his work (LOOT and ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE in London this year) and have directed most of his plays. Of course I read John Lahr's book, PRICK UP YOUR EARS, the Orton diaries and the movie of Lahr's book. Like many gay writers, Orton's life and death have almost overshadowed his brilliant work. Now one cannot write on Orton without in some way dealing with the fifteen year relationship with Kenneth Halliwell and Halliwell's murder of Orton.

Simon Bent's play, PRICK UP YOUR EARS tries to present a view of the Orton-Halliwell relationship that explains why Orton remained with Halliwell (why Halliwell killed him is much easier to understand).

HALLIWELL: You need me to write.

ORTON: You need me to breathe.

This exchange crystallizes their relationship. The older Halliwell needs to feel he is Orton's muse. He was, after all, Orton's mentor when the two first met as RADA students. Now, barely capable of leaving their tiny flat, he seems dependent on his self-confident partner.

The play begins just before Halliwell and Orton serve their six month prison term for defacing hundreds of library books. We see them in their 12 by 16 foot Islington bedsit improvising plays and "revising" all those library books. In their little world, they are playmates, collaborators and conspirators against dreary bourgeoise respectability. The older Hall has mentored Orton in an anarchic, camp style but their "creations" remain in the bedsit. When they return from prison, Orton is a changed man, eager to strike out on his own as a writer. But how much of his witty dialogue is taken from Halliwell? Orton becomes a celebrity and Halliwell is left behind, bitter and lonely. "What do you want?" Orton keeps asking. "You know what I want, " Halliwell responds. He wants Orton to himself. He is thrilled when the initial tour of LOOT fails. But LOOT becomes a London hit and Orton has success and celebrity outside of their flat. The relationship is sexless -Orton gets his sex as often as possible with as many strangers as possible while Halliwell remains home alone with his many bottles of barbiturates.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS is an intense play. The only other person who enters the bedsit is the landlady, Mrs. Cordon, who sounds like an Orton character, but is a surrogate mother and referee to the couple. The tragic end comes after she has moved away. One really feels Haliwell's immense neediness and how awful it must have been to live with him. Orton stays out of guilt and a sense of responsibility to Kenneth, but he rightfully feels trapped. Of course we know how it is going to end, but that does not alleviate the play's power and pleasure.

The cast is superb. Chris New perfectly captures Orton's cockiness and sexiness. Orton, after all, was a kind of counter-cultural sex symbol in his white T-short and dungaress. Con O'Nell's voice has always irritated me, but here, since we are suposed to feel how irritating Halliwell can be, it is appropriate. O'Neill is a fine physical actor and one feels great sympathy for Halliwell while understanding Orton's frustration and anger. GwenTaylor is both funny and touching as Mrs. Cordon. Daniel Kramer, for once, has not filled the production with needless directoral interventions. And the set is ingenious. Over their years together, Hallwill turned the walls of the flat into an all-enveloping collage and in this production the collage grows from scene to scene making the setting both a trap and the inside of Halliwell's head.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS has not been a hit, particularly after television star Matt Lucas left the cast after his ex-partner committed suicide. The West End, like Broadway, is dependent on television and film stars to attract audiences. Con O'Neill is not as well known, but is an experienced stage actor. The play probably would have been better in a smaller space than a West End theater, but I was both impressed and unsettled by the play and production.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS by Simon Bent. Directed by Daniel Kramer, designed by Peter Macdonald. Comedy Theatre. November 5, 2009.

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