Wednesday, September 1, 2010

(No.111) Did the critics see the same "What The Butler Saw"?

The previous column on (No.110) dealt with Englishman Joe Orton's 1969 play What The Butler Saw now being performed (through Sept 18) in Toronto by the Soulpepper Theatre Company. Last summer Soulpepper had presented a production of the Orton play Loot.

Our column reviewing What The Butler Saw was posted Aug.25. We prepared our review before the publication of those of the theatre critics of the major daily newspapers in Toronto.

It is sometimes interesting for us to compare our views of a play with those of these critics as well as comparing their reviews (see for example "Duelling critics over An Ideal Husband", Column No.96 on, posted June 3, 2010).

While Pat and I agreed that What The Butler Saw "is a worthwhile evening at the theatre", she "liked it somewhat more than I did." Among the trio of Toronto theatre critics, two liked it less than we did and one perhaps somewhat more.

Here are some illustrations excerpted from their reviews:

Robert Crew in The Toronto Star, Aug. 26, 2010:

"Back in 1969, when it first produced, ... it was hailed (by a few) as a black farce par excellence, an outrageous peek at modern society at its most insane.

"Forty years on, the same material does not play well at all. What once seemed cutting-edge and daringly shocking now seems distasteful and jejeune.

"And right from the get-go, the cast seems struggling to find the seam of humour that everyone assures us make this play Orton's masterpiece. ...

"The cast is a good one and the director, Jim Warren, usually has the surest of touches with this kind of comedy. But everyone -- without exception -- is pushing too hard to find the humour and put it across. There is lots of shouting and squawking and slapstick but to little avail."

[The Star's rating of the play was 1 1/2 stars out of 4 ]


J. Kelly Nestruk in The Globe and Mail, Aug.27, 2010:

"Following up on his popular production of Loot at Soulpepper last summer, director Jim Warren is taking another stab at the outrageous oeuvre of Joe Orton. But while he gts a few satisfying spurts out of What The Butler Saw, Warren misses the major arteries this time around. ...

"More than 40 years on, What The Butler Saw's grotesques retain their ability to entertain and outrage on the page. But this dark comedy is difficult to transfer effectively to the stage. Not only do Orwell's epigrams run the risk of sounding overloaded when spoken, but they must be delivered in the midst of farcical physical comedy. ...

"Warren's production is probably still worth a visit ...."

[The Globe's rating of the play was 2 stars out of 4]


Robert Cushman in The National Post, Aug. 31, 2010:

"Joe Orton [is] the young playwright famously dubbed 'The Oscar Wilde of the welfare state' .... The play ... reached the stage in a posthumous unrevised state, the source of some of its charm and some of its untidiness.

"Jim Warren's Soulpepper production is very lucid, which in this play is both a virtue and a vice. .. Warren gets the Orton tone more consistently than in last year's Loot, but not the tempo ....

"There is one triumphant performance: Graham Harley, resisting all temptation to play for eccentricity, makes [Dr.] Rance the ultimate civil servant. ... Blair Williams [as Dr. Prentice] exemplifies the good and bad in the production."

[ The National Post does not use star ratings in its theatre reviews]


Alastair Rickard