The Highway One team, who brought Shadowlands to Malvern Theatre audiences in 2011, returns with a modern classic of the English stage.
What The Butler Saw is by English playwright Joe Orton and considered by many to be his finest work. It was Orton's final play and the second to be performed after his violent murder in 1967.
Actor Kaitlyn Clare, playing Mrs Prentice, shares her thoughts on Orton and his play as well as her relationship with Highway One, her fellow actors, her personal journey, her future and many things in between.
Kaitlyn: Two roles spring forth as being the most personally and professionally challenging for me so far, for very different reasons. The first was Lady Macbeth, and I think most actors would agree that their first principal role in a Shakespearean tragedy is a confronting undertaking. Not because of the language per se, but because of the incredible complexities Shakespeare wove into his greatest characters. I was 21 when I played her, and I was working opposite James Anderson and under the direction of John Arthars, both of whom were so generous and a dream to spend a very intense period of time with. Our performances were divided in twain by an education tour and a public season in a very tiny puppetry theatre. We had no set, performed in the round, and we never physically left the playing space. It was terrifically intimate and driven by introversion and subtlety. What was most challenging was the fact that spending six months inhabiting Lady Macbeth, and at such a young age, was emotionally exhausting. I hadn't yet learned the importance (taught to me three years later by Peter Oyston) of separating myself from my role, and my obsession with her was all-encompassing. At the end of the season, I moved interstate and took a two-year break from theatre because I was genuinely a bit afraid of it.
My second most challenging role was Lorraine in Ray Mooney's Everynight Everynight (Frank Theatre at Gasworks). The trials and tribulations there lay, yes, in the role (she was definitely tricky), but also very much in the fact that it was the first time I'd been involved in a project based on true events. It's a brutal and truly shattering script and, to be honest, it took a few nips of scotch to see me through my first private read of it. It was a tremendous honour to get to know Ray and to work with director Stuart Grant and six terrifyingly talented and very well-respected male actors, for all of whom I have infinite respect. That production will forever mean a lot to me and was a very steep learning curve in many wonderful ways.
All challenges are enjoyable (if not addictive) to me now, though. I've very much come to terms with my sense of theatrical masochism.
I've really valued the time I've spent in Melbourne independent theatre on the whole. MKA's production of Nathaniel Moncrieff's Australian-gothic thriller Sleepyhead, directed by Yvonne Virsik, was my haunting introduction to this city's stages (I still have dreams about it). Then I moved into the AtticErratic family in Tom Pitts' Tell Them That It Rained Too Hard, directed by Celeste Cody. I learned a lot within that collective and from Tom's passionate words and Celeste's keen directorial sensitivities. There have been numerous plays since, but most recently I had the honour of navigating David Hare's stunning set of characters and scenes in The Blue Room with 5Pound, directed by Jason Cavanagh. I first read a borrowed copy of that play on Bondi Beach in 2011, and the experience of drinking in those words at that time struck me as being so special that I took a photograph of the script in that setting and promised myself I'd do it one day. A year later, Jason called me to gauge my interest in his upcoming production of it. The projected season clashed with a play I was already committed to, so I begged him to push it back a couple of weeks. I sent him the photo repeatedly and literally, and publicly, dropped to my knees and pleaded with him to enable me to come on the journey. That's very telling of my working relationship with Jason – we share a very cherished language. We took the journey (with Zak Zavod in the male roles) and chased our 2012 Melbourne season with a 2013 Adelaide Fringe season six months later.
That play, that team, and the people who supported our seasons changed my life. And I'm not being melodramatic – it's true. I recently received an ArtStart grant from the Australian Government and the Australia Council for the Arts to support a training and research project I'm relocating to New York in July to pursue, and whilst it's the culmination of my work so far and my sights for the future that resulted in the opportunity, I daresay I owe a lot to Jason and the critical backing of The Blue Room. My gratitude knows no bounds.
I think it's really important to choose projects that challenge and extend you, within which you will be required to do something that's a bit foreign. I'm no stranger to English comedies, but Orton's particular brand of farce is new and exciting territory for me to explore.
I recently graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Performing Arts (I'd been screen trained and hadn't had any formal theatre training prior to that degree). In my first year, I met What the Butler Saw's director, Michael Coe, and was attracted to the idea of working with him in the future. So, naturally, when he contacted me about this project and I happened to be available, I jumped at the chance to sign on.
One of the things that first struck me about the play is how much it serves as a retrospective reflection of the many socio-political changes that have occurred since its time. It was written well outside the bounds of what we'd deem to be "politically correct" today. For anyone who lived through that period or anyone born in the decades following alike, suggestions are rife to be agreed or disagreed with. Beyond that, nostalgia is a powerful force and tends toward mass appeal, and a lot of contemporary theatre, film and television productions are embracing it. The success of AMC's series Mad Men is a prime example of our fascination with the 50s, 60s and early 70s.
Orton addresses so many themes and sub-themes in the play, and a number of them are revealed through its humour and plot twists, thus I shan't be too liberal in revealing what they are. Generally speaking, it's concerned with social attitudes towards sexuality, the constant combat (both unbridled and polite) that comes with male-female and professional power-play respectively, and there's a good dose of influence from a particular classic tragedy. I can't tell you which one, but it's a good one. Everything else is for your surprise.
My character, Mrs. Prentice, is a strikingly modern woman for a period piece. There's nothing meek or well-behaved about her. She's opinionated and bold with a strong sense of desire and a frenetic energy that somehow survives a regular drenching in alcohol. She and Dr. Prentice are not unlike Edward Albee's Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in that they are quick to complain about each other and co-exist in what is a very fractured relationship, but are ultimately in love and at a loss for how to express that love…so they butt heads constantly and otherwise keep themselves busy. She's very frustrating and at times harsh, but you can't help but love her for her spark.
The collective experience among the Highway 1 Theatre Company team and the Butler cast contributes to what has been a dream process so far. Everyone is really committed, knows what they're doing, and is there to work – and we're well on track within a well-crafted schedule. Orton's text presents its own challenges in that it has a very precise and inherent rhythm, so careful attention needs to be paid to pacing and the punctuation of every line, as well as the vocal modulations required to support the humour. It's a style of communication that's quite opposed to the flexible naturalism that I, in particular, am used to, so I am constantly wielding a metaphorical hammer and banging in nails in rehearsal.
There's a lot of camaraderie and shared experience within this collective. I'm new to the fold but have known founders Michael Coe and Michael Jewell (who is playing Dr. Rance) for some years, and have been aware of the company for awhile by proxy. Gerard Lane (Mr. Prentice) and Andrew Dodds (Sergeant Match) have been involved in previous Highway 1 productions, and I've worked with other actors who've been involved in previous Highway 1 productions. So, here we all are, bonded together via numerous links. Our relationships are forged on work but we share friendships, too, and there's something really special about being as comfortable together on the floor as we are by the biscuit barrel.
What The Butler Saw
June 21 – Jul6 6
Malvern Theatre – Burke Rd East Malvern