A decade ago our London theatregoers went to see a new holiday play called The Lying Kind. I had my doubts about this: the production had mixed reviews from London critics and had been branded a black comedy. It was playing at the Royal Court in Sloane Square, a famous temple of provocative and sometimes revolutionary work for the theatre. Would it all be just too much for our innocents abroad, especially at Christmas, “the most wonderful time of the year”?
We filed into a small house — the play was ending its run, and not in triumph. Two not very competent constables appeared on a chilly street of terrace row houses. They were having an argument about which of them should ring the bell to deliver some very bad news on Christmas Eve. Five minutes in, there were a few chuckles to the right and left of me. After five more minutes, the laughs were coming from every direction. An hour later, there was a more or less continuous wall of laughter all around. There were Americans rolling on the Royal Court floor: corpsing they call it.
Five years later we were wondering what show we should plan for the holidays — it’s always a question for us. No, please... not Santaland Diaries again, we thought, even though it was terrific and also surefire box office. When I asked our board for some suggestions, our president said, “What about The Lying Kind?” I said no, absolutely not — a sardonic Christrmas elf was about as dark as we could go. This was COLORADO SPRINGS. “Well,” they said, ”we liked it.” Yes, they did. They were speaking as one. “Do you really mean it?” I asked. Yes, they did. “Will you put money on it?” Yes, they would. And they did. The production was endorsed and sponsored by the THEATREWORKS board. And, strangely believe it, the board was right. The Lying Kind proved to be the funniest show we had ever done, and one of the most original. That’s why, five years later we are doing it again — both for those who want to see it again, and for those who have not had the distinct pleasure of seeing wild wonderful farce bubble up from the well of tragedy.
Actually, the recipe for The Lying Kind is almost as tried and true as steak and kidney pie. It’s made mostly from traditional British ingredients and combined in a time tested fashion. You start with a room with doors, four of them, plus a window and a blanket chest. Then throw in some good stock characters: a daffy old lady; a cute young girl, a well-meaning duffer, and a vicar. The play features two constables straight out of Laurel & Hardy. Not the brightest bulbs in the station — very likely to get a bit muddled. And for extra mayhem let’s add a dog, a very small dog, a Chihuahua. There you have it. A classic British farce is ready for the oven.
But wait a minute, there’s more. There’s an unpleasant woman who wants to do some serious harm to a child molester. She wants to lynch him in fact — “a Christmas present to kids everywhere; the gift that keeps on giving.” And what is that the plummy new vicar is wearing under his suit? Better not ask. That sweet demented old lady turns out to have a mean streak, and that nice old man has a very weak heart — he needs tiny pills. Worst of all, the play begins with our two constables knocking on the door with the duty of telling the elderly residents their daughter has just been killed in a motorway accident. Antony Neilson’s play isn’t looking quite so funny anymore.
Strange as this may seem, even these unlikely ingredients are part of a farce tradition in the 20th century theatre. As early as 1932, the influential avant-garde theatre god Antonin Artuad praised the Marx Brothers for their revolutionary farce, which liberated theatre from stale traditions by joining violence with comedy in a completely original way. Thirty years later, the English playwright Joe Orton practically invented “black farce,” with a series of play that shocked the establishment. Orton begins What the Butler Saw with a scene in which a psychiatrist convinces a woman to take her clothes off as part of a job interview. It’s true that finding a way for a pretty young girl to take her clothes off is almost a requirement in farce (see the fabulous Noises Off) — it usually comes to little more than amusing hanky panky. But in Orton’s play, undressing leads to sexual and psychological exploitation, gender confusion, nymphomania, incest and blackmail — for starters. So it’s fair to say The Lying Kind is not breaking entirely new ground as it enters its dark territory.
Joe Orton is an arguably great playwright, who has earned himself a cranny in theatre history. But his plays have just one problem: in the theatre they are brilliantly satirical and dazzlingly witty, but not reliably hilarious. They tend to the misanthropic. This is not an issue with The Lying Kind, though it has a dark side too. The play is built on an excess of kindness. It explores the consequences of being too nice, and so repressing the hard truth of things — a natural instinct which often only makes things worse. It certainly does at #58 Hobb Road this Christmas Eve, where the well-meaning constables create many more problems than they solve. And Neilson adds plenty of vinegar to his comic stock. The champion of the abused turns out to be a damaged and seriously misguided missile. The sweet old couple has a very troubled marriage. There are shadows aplenty. But unlike Orton, this play is actually funny. It’s very, very funny. And it’s funny not just in spite of its dark side, but because of it. It’s almost as if Neilson is daring us to laugh at the unlaughable — and, with the help of vaudeville turns, really stupid jokes, accelerating confusions, several doors and the dog — we do.
Most of you have heard of the famous Milgram psychology experiment which tested participants’ willingness to administer pain to others when ordered by official authorities – the levels were disturbingly high. Something like that happens at a farce too. Farce encourages its audience to leave its conscience at the door. We become heartless, and very often the better the farce, the more happily heartless we become. That poor guy slipping on a banana peel is about to experience a personal disaster which we are so much looking forward to. The more miserable things get for the characters, the more fun it is for us. The experience of farce, as Artaud says, is liberating, and partly because we are briefly and safely unburdened by the weight of conscience. Of course that doesn’t mean farce turns us all into pure sadists — we know it’s all pretend, and we know in the end order will restored and everyone will be all right. Well, mostly.
So a very good farce always sails close to the rocks of chaos, with the play betting on the idea that when things get really awful they also become hilarious. “It’s so bad it’s funny,” as we say. The experience of the worst becoming a reliable source of comedy is something a few of us regularly discover at funerals. In the theatre, as in life, this is risky business. But well managed risks in the hands of master farceurs have fabulous pay offs as you will discover at The Lying Kind. Once again I want to say I have nothing to do with all the terrible things you are about to see. It was entirely our board’s fault, and now that it has proved such a success, it is your fault too. Have yourselves a very happy holiday — and should two constables ring your doorbell on Christmas Eve, I would strongly advise you against answering it.