War and Peace is a a classic, Jane Eyre is a classic, Gulliver’s Travels is a classic; applying the same adjective to Joe Orton’s play What the Butler Saw feels slightly uncomfortable, yet if you were looking for a piece of literature that perfectly captures its time, while also having universal themes that will resound in any society but a utopian anarchy, it would be hard to beat. If you were selling it as a movie script you might call it Kafka meets Oscar Wilde meets Carry on Matron.
If you take the odd joke from the script in isolation, it could feel like an artefact of its time, and distinctly misogynist, but watching the whole play, staged at the Hampstead Theatre in London, its distinctly subversive and even feminist message are clear. Unjust power is not just corrupting, but perverting, and ultimately self-defeating.
The story begins in classic farce style, with a pompous psychiatrist trying to seduce a hapless young female job-seeker. Naked, she’s shoved behind a curtain when the doctor’s domineering wife appears, then more high jinks ensue when the government inspector turns up. A randy bellboy, who’s trying to blackmail the wife, and a hapless policeman seeking the bronze penis from a statue of Churchill are soon in the mix, and much running in and out of doors, exchanging of genders and clothing, and general chaos ensues.
What makes the play, and this production, work is that it is absolutely full on. No line is shirked, every situation is exploited, until the end, when the twist is that one final visual gag isn’t played. Any faint hint of half-heartedness, any wavering, would turn this into a ridiculous farce, but fully played, it is real satire.
It seems the play has “has never been produced on Broadway”. Perhaps it should be.