Friday, 3 March 2017

What the Butler saw? A tribute to Joe Orton.

What did the butler see? Not a great deal as it turns out. Peckham's MOCA gallery was a new one on me but it wasn't one you could spend a great deal of time in. It was about half the size of my front room (which isn't large in the first place) and, despite a very friendly briefing from one of the curators, there really wasn't a great deal of stuff in that room.

Situated on the hilariously aptly named Bellenden Road (actually a little oasis of gastro pubs, cupcake shops, and independent bookstores - gentrification basically) the MOCA, as part of the LGBT history month, had put together their own little tribute to Joe Orton who died half a century ago this August.

Orton was the playwright responsible for darkly comedic satires and farces like Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane, and What the Butler Saw. The last of which has leant its name to this exhibition. Orton was openly homosexual at a time when that was still illegal. It is a cruel irony that the UK law that decriminalised homosexuality was only given royal assent a fortnight before Orton's death (incredibly Scotland had to wait until 1980 and Northern Ireland 1982).

Not that the law stopped Orton having fun. He met the actor and writer Kenneth Halliwell when in his late teens and they soon became lovers, moving into a West Hampstead flat and starting to write together. At first work was hard to come by so they amused themselves with pranks and hoaxes. As well as making crude jokes about Winston Churchill's penis they enjoyed playing with words (Prick Up Your Ears played on the fact that 'ears' is an anagram of 'arse' - you'll not think about it in the same way again now). Even more so they enjoyed playing with the books that contained these words. The most notorious of their jolly japes saw Orton and Halliwell surreptitiously remove books from local libraries, modify (or deface) the cover art, and put them back on the shelves.

A compilation of John Betjeman poems was returned with a new dustjacket featuring a heavily tattooed (at the time nowhere near as commonplace) and nearly naked middle aged man. Agatha Christie's Secret of Chimneys saw the idyllic Venetian scene that graced its cover populated by a pair of gargantuan felines. I wonder if the Goodies saw it before they made Kitten Kong. Certainly it predates a lot of the cat based 'lolz' that the internet provides us with these days. Truly, Orton did live in the wrong time.

The detournement they practiced was inspired by the Situationists (and later adjusted to fit a punk ethos) and as well as being fun had a serious side to it. They sought to construct situations that would liberate people from the alienation and false desires engendered by commodity fetishism. Orton was highly dismissive of Harold Pinter's 'enormous house near Regent's Park' and its 'chandeliers'.

When finally caught they were taken to court and amazingly imprisoned for this. That's right. They went to prison for defacing library books. They did a six month stretch in 1962. It's virtually impossible to imagine that anything other than homophobia was responsible for this. Unsurprisingly being locked up with other men didn't break Orton. If anything it made him. He said he'd seen that old whore, society, lift her skirt and that the stench was pretty foul. It crystallised for him what he wanted to say and led to a necessary detachment in his writing.

A year later Orton made his first real breakthrough when The Ruffian on the Stair was broadcast on the BBC. The big plays followed this and Orton's success  was eventually ensured. He appeared on Call My Bluff , he was photographed with Twiggy, interviewed by Eamon Andrews, and made friends with The Beatles. He even received praise from Tennessee Williams.

It wasn't to last long, however, because in August 1967 Halliwell, in a fit of rage over his boyfriend's infidelity and jealous of his success, bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer in their Islington home before killing himself with an overdose of barbiturates washed down with some grapefruit juice. Joe Orton was just 34 years old. When Harold Pinter read the eulogy at his funeral he described him as a "bloody marvellous writer".

So, it's pretty apparent, it'd be highly unlikely that anything in this exhibition could compare with Orton's own eventful, if short, life - and sure enough it doesn't. The three artists contributing works have all come at Orton from very different angles. David Lock has probably employed the most traditional approach. Over a wall plastered with vaguely, though nothing to worry Robert Mapplethorpe, homoerotic imagery Lock has added three of his oil paintings.


As the nephew of Joe Orton you'd imagine him to have a great sympathy for his subject and that certainly comes through in these paintings. All three of them are obviously very gay. Blue Boxers, below, invites you, and there's no delicate way of putting this, to rip the pants down and, er, get going. Prick up your 'ears' indeed!

Looted with El Munria is more problematic, featuring as it does the hotel in Tangiers that Orton, and the Beat Generation, stayed at when looking to score both drugs and underage sex. Let me make this absolutely clear. I'm not equating homosexuality with paedophilia. But what I am saying is that successful Western men, both gay and straight, exploited economic imbalances and local corruption to exploit young boys and girls. Acts that would now, correctly, be considered historic sex abuse.



So you could go to prison for adding a cat collage to an Agatha Christie book but not for raping a minor - and we think things are fucked up now! It's not clear how much, or how little, involvement Orton actually had with this kind of colonial sex tourism but it can't be ignored that he moved in those circles and stayed in those hotels.

Tim Youd's approached Orton from a literary angle - which seems appropriate. He uses one single sheet of paper and a carbon copy and types each page of an Orton book over and over again on that single sheet until he has rewritten the whole book. He's applied the same method to both Brendan Behan and Jim Jarmusch.

Using an Adler typewriter similar to the type Orton worked with it's performance art basically. There's not much to see here except said typewriter, a copy of the book he's copying, and the charred looking and illegible results. A fool's errand or a work of lunatic scholarship? You decide. It'd certainly have been intriguing to stumble across Youd pounding the Adler keys in either the lobby of the Queen's Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue (where What the Butler Saw was first performed) or the very same Islington library that Orton and Halliwell had got themselves into so much trouble in over fifty years ago and now contains a section devoted to that very incident.



Most baffling of all is the sculptor Louise Plant's Rip Cord (below). It's lovely to look at and it's painted a nice colour but what the fuck has it got to do with Joe Orton? Let's hear from the artist herself:-

"A Rip Cord is pulled to save a life or lives. With this piece I have combined the red blood of the beating heart and blood that is shed when one is wounded. The tautness of the material between joints portrays the discomfort I feel but at the same time can seek, in wanting to both live a good, safe life and yet at a primitive or base level, also went to 'let rip' and badly wound".

Her explanation is almost as contorted as Rip Cord itself but it's not without truth, and some beauty. Its nature, both playful and serious at the same time, doesn't seem wildly inaccurate when considering a character as multi-faceted as Orton. As such Plant, along with both Lock and Youd, had come up with compelling responses to the brief they'd accepted and in not overshadowing Orton himself, however unintentionally that may've been, let big bad Joe (as fellow Leicesterian's Yeah Yeah Noh called him on their 1984 Prick Up Your Ears EP) remain the star of the show.


I was glad I went. I just wish there'd been a bit more there. With that I headed off for a hot chocolate in the charming Petitou café round the corner.

Thanks to 'Raymond Noire' for giving me the heads up on this show.

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