Seduction, blackmail, crossdressing, insanity - all these are part of What the Butler Saw. Joe Orton's dark farce is the next production in Canberra Rep's 2020 season.
What the Butler Saw, Orton's third full-length play, was first produced in 1969, two years after the playwright was murdered by his jealous and frustrated lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who then committed suicide.
Director Liz Bradley says of Orton, "I think he's a very astute observer of the human condition."
Orton was writing in the Swinging 60s, a time of social upheaval and change - homosexuality was legalised, censorship was loosened, women's rights and youth culture were championed - and many people were uncomfortable with what was happening.
For the playwright, who enjoyed cocking a snook at social proprieties - he and Halliwell had served prison sentences for their creative and surreal vandalising of the covers of library books - it was a golden opportunity.
Orton gained fame and fortune using bad taste and the bizarre to confront and provoke.
Farce was a theatrical staple and Bradley says What the Butler Saw is "a piss-take of the farce itself".
Orton exploited its conventions to hold up a mirror to British society.
"He had a go at everything in this thing," says Bradley, who directed the play once before for The Players Company as well as a CAT Award-winning production of Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane.
The new production of What the Butler Saw was postponed because of COVID-19 just as casting was about to begin but was given the go-ahead in July. Bradley and company have enjoyed exploring Orton's scathing view of society.
Morals and mores, hypocrisy, the role of authority figures including the police and the medical profession, the social order - all these and more are held up to examination and ridicule in politically incorrect fashion and the action becomes increasingly chaotic.
The play begins with psychiatrist Dr Prentice (played by David Cannell) in his clinic, interviewing and attempting to seduce would-be secretary Geraldine (Zoe Swan).
When Dr Prentice's wife (Lainie Hart) arrives unexpectedly, he has to hide the girl. but worse is to come.
A government inspector, Dr Rance (Peter Holland) also turns up, among other characters - and craziness, cross-dressing and chaos ensue as well as some bizarre revelations.
Cannell says, "Nothing's really changed" in the more than 50 years since What the Butler Saw premiered, making it as relevant as ever.
He says he had never been in an Orton play before and wasn't all that familiar with the man and his work but there was one connection.
"My dad knew [married actors] Prunella Scales and Timothy West."
The couple had been in a 1987 televised production of What the Butler Saw.
"My parents told me about the show when I was about eight."
Cannell was able to watch and enjoy the TV production on YouTube.
During the rehearsal period, Cannell went to the coast and fell over headfirst onto a rock.
"It ripped open my eyelid and eyebrow and my eye is half closed."
He says "90 per cent of people" he saw afterwards thought he had simply been playing around with make-up effects.
It's not hard to see why: Cannell is a performer at Questacon and has performed onstage in many stage musicals in Canberra.
But that less than sympathetic reaction by many to a very real injury that could have been serious might have appealed to Joe Orton's dark sense of humour.