What the Uncle Saw

We are all of us, I think, familiar with the image of the benevolently patronising uncle. I know I am, having filled the role to glowing acclaim in three separate productions of nieces and two moving renditions of nephews.

In the early days of the run, I should say, the audience was not particularly difficult to please. The material was new and provocative, the comic routines still fresh and entertaining. A brief routine structured around the waggling of an eyebrow was wont to set the children’s table at a roar. The simultaneous waggling of both was enough to precipitate an impromptu comfort break.

But over time, as is the way in this business, the material grew stale and the audience’s attention began to wander. And so, in an attempt to reignite something of the old flame, I would feign an interest in whatever visually appealing bauble was closest to hand. All too often, I would languidly dangle some captivating though pointless trinket in front of their eyes, supposing my bored expression would be blurred and out of focus behind the object of their desires.

But there came, in turn, for each of my five nephlings, an age at which their gaze looked beyond the watch or mobile telephone or extension lead dangling between our faces, and their eyes visibly uncrossed in order to look more sternly at my true expression. And a cloud of disapproval began to spread across their faces like a spoonful of cocoa in milk, outraged that I should be putting on a performance for their benefit. That what had been the undisrupted focus of their interest was for me but a trifling plaything with which I deceitfully and maliciously sought to distract and entertain them.

I do not try this any more. The wails of a young audience are apt to induce sympathetic resonance on even the toughest of heartstrings. But my maturity as a performer has also taken place because I have learned what it is like to be on the other side of the extension lead. I have myself learned how it feels to see, in the fuzzy hinterland behind the immediate object of my attention, expressions of patronising malice seeking to entertain and distract me only long enough as serves its purpose.

And it is not a pleasant realisation. In fact, if there is one lesson I could give my five nephews and nieces – assuming they will ever look me in the eye again – it would be to teach them to beware. To teach them that a quick glance past the colonnaded facade is often enough to spot the mould stains on the inner landing and the wet rodent footprints on the kitchen countertops.

The truth of this was driven home to me last week when a friend introduced me to the work of the English dramatist Joe Orton. “What the Butler Saw”, a comedy now running at London’s Vaudeville theatre, is a play which held a mirror up to the 1960s society in which it was written. Before breaking the mirror over its knee and stabbing 1960s society in the eye with a shard.

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But the opening minutes give no sign of this underlying brutality. The first act begins at a brisk and fluid pace, bristling with the sort of epigram that led to Joe Orton being called “the Oscar Wilde of welfare state gentility.” This feels like the traditional English farces of old – all vicars, knickers and snickers – with overly strained visual gags and ludicrous plot contrivances to match. The appreciative crowd goes into the interval expecting no more than a highly conventional, if slightly dated, example of this British theatrical form. The bauble has proven alluring enough to entirely overwhelm our depth of field.

But it is in the second act that the zoom lens of our concentration slowly begins to readjust its focus. The laughter which bursts from our lungs at the sight of Omid Djalili wildly brandishing a revolver collapses in our throats as we see his blood-stained costars, and needs to be defibrillated in our mouths as the situation becomes ever more horrifyingly entangled. Without relenting for a second in pace or freneticism, farce has become tragedy. This is Kafka as adapted for the stage by Mel Brooks.

And then we come to the dénouement. A conclusion which involves not so much a mere Deus Ex Machina as a veritable mechanised Pantheon. Every convention normally employed by farce to achieve an aesthetically satisfying resolution is remorselessly lampooned. The genre itself, which for two hours or more has held us in a state of willing disbelief, is now being pulled out from under our feet. The facade has crumbled and the concealed graffiti is beginning to peek through the cracks.

And the joke is on us. For investing emotion in the characters; for expecting rationality from Art; for seeking to erect a dividing line between farce and tragedy. The bauble has been snatched away and the sneering, impatient face of Joe Orton is now only too plain to see. How foolish of us to suppose that the happy endings we graft on to the end of our theatrical farces should be any less contrived than our daily attempts to create order out of chaos.

Joe Orton was not a happy man, and this is by no means a happy play. The very finality of its concluding scene is a reflection on the artificiality of such decisive endings. Discrete passages of life are not marked by the abrupt descending of a curtain, and any work of art which attempts to show otherwise is perpetuating an irresistible collective delusion.

What The Butler Saw, in 100 odd minutes of dialogue and 88 very odd pages of text, shows us the true futility attendant on the attempt to lead a structured life. Chaos is inevitable, and the attempts we make to master it are so ludicrous as to be simultaneously farcical and tragic. It is not an easy play to digest, but at the same time it is all too easy to swallow.

And while I would highly recommend it to any of my readers, don’t think I’ll be taking any of my nephlings any time soon.