David Cunliffe (1973)
see note on Funeral Games
David Cunliffe (1973)
see note on Funeral Games
James Ormerod (1968)
‘I think the Christian religion is a terrible mistake. In the beginning at the time of the Roman Empire, it had meaning because Christians were probably rebels against a dreary, boring Establishment.’
This was Joe Orton in an interview (with Barry Hanson) which formed part of the programme notes for the Royal Court productions of The Erpingham Camp and The Ruffian on the Stair in June 1967. Orton’s remarks are at least as relevant to his television play Funeral Games, originally designed for the ‘charity’ episode of the Seven Deadly Virtues Rediffusion series that included The Good and Faithful Servant. In the event, Funeral Games was made for Yorkshire Television and screened, like Entertaining Mr Sloane, in the ITV Playhouse slot in 1968. Although British churchgoing was already in decline, the Church in the 1960s was still a prime example of the ‘dreary, boring Establishment’ that was, in its various manifestations, anathema to Orton. The decline has become much steeper since: in 1964, 74% of those taking part in the British Social Attitudes survey ‘belong[ed] to a religion and attended services’; the corresponding figures in 1983 and 2005 were 55% and 31% respectively. Religiophobia is in better shape: there’s still a sizeable audience always ready to relish the ridiculing of organised religion, even in its infirmity. But Funeral Games is so predominantly a lampoon of pious pretensions and hypocrisies – tabloid journalism and the public appetite for it are a distant second – that it now seems dated in a way that his other plays are not.
There are other weaknesses. John Lahr accurately describes the play as transitional between Loot and What the Butler Saw. (The several resonances between Loot and Funeral Games include macabre hiding places and/or contents thereof – money in the coffin in Loot, a human hand in a cake tin in Funeral Games.) Orton tried in Funeral Games, writes Lahr in Prick Up Your Ears, ‘to solidify the stylistic advances of language and logic in Loot … [and] to rev up his plotting to create the sharp, brief juxtapositions which the grotesque requires’. This only partly succeeds. Lahr is right that the ending of Funeral Games ‘fizzles out, with Orton unable to bring off in imagery the dizzying confusions and final resolution that, a few months later in What the Butler Saw, he would accomplish with such aplomb’. Funeral Games lacks the farcical momentum of both Loot and What the Butler Saw and what are verbal highlights on the page don’t have the same impact when they’re spoken:
[Tessa lifts out a small framed painting and holds it up.] …
McCorquodale: It was my intention to represent – in a symbolic fashion – the Christian church.
Tessa: A bird of prey carrying an olive branch. You’ve put the matter in a nutshell.
James Ormerod, by now very experienced in directing Orton for television, ensures his actors play things straight but only Bill Fraser, as the defrocked priest McCorquodale, comes through strongly. Michael Denison’s religious charlatan Pringle is amusingly sonorous but Denison is self-consciously straight-faced. As the shady Caulfield, hired by Pringle to spy on Tessa (Pringle’s wife and McCorquodale’s health visitor), Ian McShane has a good sexual ambiguity but not much vocal dexterity. A more surprising disappointment is Vivien Merchant’s Tessa. Merchant mostly incants her lines, which results in some very odd emphases.
In Accident and the film of The Homecoming, Vivien Merchant proved herself a superb interpreter of the work of her husband Harold Pinter, who seems to have been the only contemporary playwright Joe Orton admired. The radio version of The Ruffian on the Stair – the first thing Orton sold, when the BBC accepted it in 1963 – was, in John Lahr’s words, ‘erected on the scaffold of [the] plots for The Room and The Birthday Party‘ and ‘embarrassingly derivative’. Orton had rewritten The Ruffian on the Stair extensively by the time the Royal Court did it on stage, and this is the script used for the Yorkshire Television production directed by David Cunliffe.
The framework and atmosphere of the play are too indebted to Pinter to shake him off entirely but The Ruffian on the Stair also foreshadows and mirrors a major Orton achievement – Entertaining Mr Sloane. In Ruffian, it’s Wilson, the young visitor looking for a room, who is the injured – eventually, the fatally injured – party. Whereas Sloane wants to escape punishment for homicide, Wilson is looking to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of another character. Kath in Sloane and Joyce in Ruffian are both childless: the former shows a babyish mother-love for a garden gnome; the latter is sentimentally attached to her goldfish. While Mike and Joyce share a bed rather than blood ties, Mike also shares, with Ed in Sloane, a dubious professional life outside the home and a furious conviction that women spoil things for (and between) men. The now-dead, idealised young man in the scheme of Sloane – who was Ed’s best mate and Kath’s short-lived husband – is, in Ruffian, Wilson’s slain elder sibling: Wilson’s admiration for him reads as an expression of homosexual rather than brotherly love. In both Ruffian and Sloane, the relationship of the surviving characters at the end of the play has the quality of a pathological refuge.
A striking feature of the 1973 TV version is that it already defines The Ruffian on the Stair as a period piece. A legend on the screen at the start indicates 1963. There are early Beatles hits and Billy J Kramer’s version of ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret?’ on the soundtrack, mostly coming from Wilson’s portable radio. Billy Hamon’s Wilson is a serious weakness. Right from the first shot of him on the staircase before he rings on Joyce’s door, Hamon is posing for the camera. His characterisation is one-note – weakly thuggish – and he never gets the hang of the lines. In a three-character play, it’s obviously bad news if you feel the piece is treading water whenever one of them is speaking. All the more fortunate, then, that Michael Bryant and Judy Cornwell are excellent. Cornwell is touchingly vulnerable as the used and abused Joyce. Bryant’s Mike is a brutal spiv misogynist. Both these characters are, in their different ways, hard to take. Joe Orton’s phenomenal verbal flair and the actors’ craft and wit make them harder not to enjoy.
20 August 2017