(Josh McConville, Robin Goldsworthy and Caroline Craig in
rehearsal for Loot;
photo by Heidrun Lohr)
In 1966, Richard Cottrell went to see Joe Orton's Loot on London's West End and
at one point laughed so much he thought he was going to be
45 years on, Cottrell is directing a production of Loot for Sydney Theatre
Company; a play he describes as "terrific but difficult". Now
regarded as a comic masterpiece, the first production in 1965 was a
Directed by Peter Wood, with an all-star cast that included
Geraldine McEwan, Ian McShane and Kenneth Williams, they didn't
quite know how to play it and camped it up. It folded after a
Undeterred, Charles Marowitz directed a new production the
following year, which was a huge success, transferring from the
Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre to the Criterion on Piccadilly Circus
where Cottrell saw it. Not surprisingly, some were shocked and
offended by Loot: a
sparkling, black-hearted, outrageously explicit, ferociously funny
farce that takes satirical aim at police corruption, the Roman
Catholic Church, religious hypocrisy and ruthless greed.
"I remember when it transferred to the West End, a man called Peter
Cadbury who ran the major ticketing agencies refused to sell
tickets for Loot
because he thought it shouldn't be seen," says Cottrell
Nonetheless, it was the hit play of the year and Orton was hailed
as British theatre's blazing new star.
A year later, he was dead at 34, his skull smashed in with a hammer
by his partner Kenneth Halliwell, who then killed himself with an
overdose of sleeping pills, mad with jealousy over Orton's success
and sexual promiscuity. It was a fate that wouldn't have seemed out
of place among the casual, outré violence of Orton's plays.
Loot, which stars Darren
Gilshenan, Caroline Craig, Robin Goldsworthy, William Zappa and
Josh McConville, is set on the day of Mrs. McLeavy's funeral. Her
son Hal and his mate Dennis have just robbed a bank. When Detective
Inspector Truscott of Scotland Yard arrives - insisting he's from
the metropolitan water board - they stuff her corpse into a
cupboard so they can stash the money in her coffin. Mrs. McLeavy's
nurse Fay, a devout Catholic whose seven husbands have died in
quick succession along with many of her patients, agrees to help
them - for a cut of the stolen cash.
Back in the 1960s, rampant bi-sexuality, bent coppers and murderous
nurses were not things you put on stage - and certainly not with
Orton's brazen, unapologetic glee.
"He was prepared to speak the unspeakable; and this gave the plays
their joy and danger," writes John Lahr in the introduction to
Methuen's Orton: The Complete Plays.
"He had absolutely no respect for tradition, authority or moral
codes of conduct and that was what made (his first full-length
play) Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot so alarming," says
Times have changed and inevitably the play's power to shock isn't
what it once was.
"I think we've all got long used to police corruption but of course
they hadn't then and that caused a lot of outrage," says Cottrell.
"Orton said somewhere, 'people don't believe this is true. Scotland
Yard knows that it is.'"
Truscott was in fact based on a real person: Harold Challenor of
the Metropolitan Police who was charged in 1963 with conspiracy to
pervert the course of justice.
Though police corruption may not shock us anymore, it will
certainly strike a chord.
"What I don't think will change is people's reaction to Orton's
attitude to the church and death because death still remains a
sacred cow," says Cottrell, "and I hope Christians will continue to
find the play as offensive as Christians did then!
Loot is a hard play
to get right - but if anyone can do it, it's Cottrell, who was born
in England and has a great affinity with British comedy as his STC
productions of Travesties and Ying Tong: A Walk with
The Goons attest.
Done well, Loot with
its lethally polished epigrammatic style remains searingly funny.
Take the exchange when Truscott arrests the entirely innocent Mr.
McLeavy: What am I charged
Truscott: That needn't concern
you for the moment. We'll fill in the details
McLeavy: You can't do this. I've
always been a law-abiding citizen. The police are for the
protection of ordinary people
Truscott: I don't know where you
pick up these slogans, sir. You must read them on
The key to making it work is to play it absolutely for real,
Orton always insisted that Loot was "a serious play".
"People think I write fantasy, but I don't; some things may be
exaggerated or distorted in the same way that painters distort and
alter things, but they're realistic figures," he told one
"The writing is very, very brilliant," says Cottrell. "He wrote
with the greatest possible care like [Restoration playwright,
William] Congreve - and I think that's the trap. It reads like
Congreve but you mustn't direct it like Congreve because it's got
to sound natural. So the actors have the difficult road to hoe of
respecting the text but not putting it into inverted commas as it
"Orton seems to have instinctively understood that the basis of
farce is the upsetting of bourgeois morality. In Loot that's what he's doing
all the time. But farce doesn't work unless for the actors it's
Caroline Craig, who plays the nurse, is thrilled by the challenge.
She has loved Orton since she saw the film Prick Up Your
Ears as a teenager and read Lahr's biography on which it was
"I really love the black comedy of it," she says of Loot. "To me it really is kind
of like A Clockwork Orange meets Pinter meets Oscar Wilde.
It also has elements of [British comedy troupe] The Mighty Boosh. I
love the velocity of the language and the play on words. It uses
text as a weapon and also it just flips you on your head all the
time. His writing seems really fearless and it has a f-k off energy
to it and an anarchic quality that is very exciting."
Craig says that she wanted the role so much she has "never worked
so hard for an audition. Working with Richard [in the audition
room] was really fun. As an actor you want to have a strong
objective but he said, 'no, it's too obvious, you're giving the
whole game away.' It's true. There has to be that cloak of
respectability. She might happen to look like a bombshell and be
absolutely conniving but she behaves like a very prim and proper
nurse so it will be fun to play with that juxtaposition. I think
that's all through the writing. There are these desperate animals
clawing underneath these very proper ways of behaving."
"I think what is difficult [for the actors] - and should be
thrilling for the audience - is that the play is completely
heartless: glitteringly, dazzlingly immoral, amoral and heartless,"
He and designer Victoria Lamb have opted for a naturalistic
"That's one of the reasons the first production was a failure," he
says. "They did the play on a stylized black and white set in the
style of Aubrey Beardsley. Victoria and I decided pretty early on
that we should do it naturalistically, in her terms 'in the period'
- which was rather a shock to me because, of course, I was
Loot, Drama Theatre,
Sydney Opera House, 16 September - 23 October, 2011.