Monday, 5 October 2009

Prick Up Your Ears, Comedy Theatre

(EDIT: Obviously, I wrote this before the very sad news about Kevin McGee broke. Condolences to his family and friends.)

Matt Lucas's starring role in the West End stage production of Prick Up Your Ears creates an interesting opportunity to contrast two dramatic treatments of the same source material - Joe Orton's diaries and John Lahr's biography of the playwright.

The first adaptation of Prick Up Your Ears was the 1987 film, written by Alan Bennett, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. (NB, my notes of the film are based on having seen it quite a few years ago...)

Although its depiction of Orton's promiscuous lifestyle raised a few eyebrows at the time, the film is a fairly straightforward biopic of the writer's rise to fame and the breakdown of his relationship with one-time collaborator and long-term partner Kenneth Halliwell, culminating in Halliwell's brutal murder of Orton and subsequent suicide.

Bennett frames the story by introducing a fictional version of Lahr (played by Wallace Shawn), who interviews Orton's family and friends - particularly his agent, the legendary Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave), who introduces scenes by reading from the diary that she encouraged Orton to keep, with a view to future publication. (Ironically, the details of his sex life that Orton recorded in his diary played a part in pushing Halliwell over the edge.)

Bennett also reflects the relationship between the successful artist Orton and the overlooked Halliwell by depicting tension between the preoccupied biographer and his marginalised English wife (Lindsay Duncan).

Simon Bent's stage version, which opened recently in London after a run in Brighton, takes a very different approach, restricting the action to the claustrophobic Islington flat where Orton and Halliwell lived - and died - together.

Remaining in the flat focuses the story more on Halliwell's descent from insecurity into murderous psychosis. As Orton increasingly goes out into the world, for both his casual sexual encounters and his successful career, his partner becomes increasingly reclusive.

The bedsit is very much Halliwell's environment and increasingly reflects his mental state, as the walls become covered in his montage of photographs. By the end of the play, dramatic lighting and echoey sound design create a strong sense of his psychological disintegration.

While Matt Lucas gives a powerful performance as Halliwell, Chris New's Joe Orton is almost a bit part - especially in contrast to the dangerous and sexually charged swagger of Gary Oldman in the film. Bent's play is very much Halliwell's story.

The play has flashes of humour, but really comes to life when it focuses on the destructive conflict between the two men. It might lack the scope of the film, with its greater freedom to shift through time and location, but it's an intense adaptation that makes the most of its theatrical setting.

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