Subversive force

26th September 1997 at 01:00
WHAT THE BUTLER SAW, From today until October 18, Crucible, Sheffield, Tel: 01142 769922

The play Shopping and F***ing shocks even before you walk in the door - the shock is in the title," says Michael Grandage. "What the Butler Saw had to go at it in other ways, but it still has a capacity to shock and be subversive 30 years after Joe Orton died. It was written when heavy censorship was coming to an end."

Grandage is relishing his first attempt at directing comedy with Orton's wildly irreverent masterpiece, to be staged at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre. What The Butler Saw is clearly Orton's best play, but it is a touch flawed, Grandage suggests. Why is that?

"Because Orton died before it was performed, he missed that vital period of finding a director and cast, playing around with the structure and the rewriting during rehearsals. So, slightly flawed but brilliant. Classic British farce has a puritanical streak, but Orton pushed the boundaries by being up-front shocking, never subtle. The whole incest thing, the whole phallic nature of the play is there in evidence. Sex in the play is talked about rather than suggested, which had been the nature of farce up until that point. "

Has Grandage been tempted to make changes?

"Oh, no. The play is such that if you get one actor not coming in through a door at the right time, then things will go wrong. What The Butler Saw creates its own style."

But he has had to take liberties with the design. The Crucible does present a problem with the final scene when Orton's characters are taken up by rope ladder to their bright new dawn.

"Because the Crucible has a thrust stage, we've had to create a back wall with a skylight, so that everyone in the theatre can see the action. A ladder structure gets brought in at a 45-degree angle from the skylight to centre stage and Sergeant Match climbs down it. We are making a virtue out of the fact that rather than have a 'weedy' old rope ladder, which is in itself a statement of the play, we're making it slightly more non-naturalistic by having a full ladder. The play itself goes non-naturalistic at that point and we start that process with the entrance of the ladder. Phallic? Yes, but so is the whole play."

In the play Orton uses Winston Churchill as a metaphor for his attacks on English society, but Grandage was a child in the Sixties and says he does not fully understood the resonances the Churchill name had. Neither will today's young people and he is curious to know what they will make of it, even though the Churchill theme runs outside the central plot.

"As for younger people receiving the centre of the play, I think that will be as alive and as potent as when the first audiences saw it. What will be interesting for a younger audience is the fact that they're in the theatre thinking they are going to see a period piece, then finding just how alive and immediate it actually is. A period piece and subversive - that's a strange and a fascinating contradiction."

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