5th-9th June 2007, New Wimbledon Studio Theatre, Directed by Val Foskett
Written in 1959 when he was 26 and rarely performed, 'Fred and Madge' is Orton's very first play. The title characters seem to be the stereotypical married couple, bored with each other, talking in cliches. But it turns out that Fred's job is to push boulders up-hill, and Madge's is to sieve water all day long. Further since the action is repeatedly interrupted and commented on by a figure like a director, it seems they are inhabiting a play about themselves. Soon it is clear that London is being subsumed by rampant greenery and the whole cast goes into ecstasies of escape...
Through it all shines Orton’s extraordinary way with one-liners and with dialogue that reeks of hilarious sexual and social innuendo. The net result is a brilliantly inventive and staggeringly bold piece of theatre.
"Do you want to ruin society and civilisation with your laughter?"
"Yes, Oh Yes!"
In his novel "Head to Toe, 1961" Orton wrote, "Words were more effective than actions; in the right hands verbs and nouns could create panic….. when a particularly dangerous collection of words exploded, the shock waves were capable of killing centuries afterwards." Orton’s aim in all his writing was to use this power of words as a weapon against targets such as hypocrisy, and the dead hand of establishment thinking which censored and proscribed self-expression, whether in the public domain of writing and art, or in personal matters such as sexuality. He was passionate about this. Yet while the other Angry Young Men of the theatre expressed their anger directly, Orton used the weapon of laughter against his targets, as his characters in this play do against Modern Architecture.
This is Orton’s first play written in 1959, untitled by him, and not included in his "complete works". His targets are establishment totems like the church or the BBC, the use of cliché and slogan to disguise the lack of real ideas and kill off imagination, and the myth of the Nobility of Work when applied to boring, dead-end jobs, all areas he would revisit in his later work. After the success of "Loot" and "Entertaining Mr Sloane", he didn’t seem to want to acknowledge this early work. What makes it so interesting today is to see how Orton began to develop that skill with verbal weapons which later has the accuracy and destructive force of an Exocet. At this point in time, his aim is less focussed and his ammunition more widely scattered. As with a shotgun? Or perhaps in this case an elephant gun?
This is not to be confused with the real India as we know it. It seems to include much of the Middle East as well as the subcontinent, a curious blend of mis-remembered and half-understood leftovers of the Raj with copious additions of Ali Baba and the 1001 nights! Orton mirrors and sends up the ignorance of the average Brit in the 50s (before the advent of the package tour) about "Abroad", and captures the simultaneous longing for and fear of the exotic, the desire for imaginary imperial splendour and the misgivings about coping with the unfamiliar.
All Greek to them…
The unusual jobs held by Fred and Madge are actually taken from Greek myth, where they are forms of torture suffered in the Underworld after death by those who have annoyed the Gods: Sisyphus had the task of rolling a stone uphill which then rolled down again, Ixion was bound to a forever-spinning wheel and the Belides were the young women who had to carry water in leaking vessels. Orton himself escaped from a boring job to go to drama school, and pitied his father who had spent his life in a boring job. Orton’s later play "The Good and Faithful Servant" is an impassioned attack on a system which imposes this soul-destroying life on so many – in "Fred & Madge" work is shown literally as Hell.
"In advance of avant-garde"
While working on this play, we have all noticed ideas Orton had which have subsequently reappeared in other contexts: Orton called modern architecture "a glass and concrete pustule" long before Prince Charles called it a carbuncle. The tabloids referred to the "Royal soap opera", long after Orton had Queenie speak of "never missing an episode". Ecstasy is referred to in the play as a mood you can buy in the shops long before it was a mood-changing drug, and the whole idea of moods for sale recently featured in an imagined future in Doctor Who! And interestingly the idea of an escape from the stifling conservatism of post-war Britain to India, imagined by Orton in 1959, was embraced in fact in the late 60s and 70s by the hippy movement.
Only the names have been changed
...and I’ve changed them only where I think that the originals will have no meaning for the bulk of the modern audience, hence a reference to the Archers will be more widely understood now than mention of Mrs Dale’s Diary. This policy does of course create anachronisms in the 1959 setting of the play, but in the context of elephants tethered to runner beans, bats being heavy on coal and moods which can be bought in shops, perhaps accuracy of realism is not a prime consideration!
Fred - Neil Kelly
Madge - Tori Heggs
Queenie - Alison Raffan
Gladys - Kate Rogers
Webber - Mike Norman-Smith
Sykes - Jeremy Wray
Old Man - James Grayston
Dr Petrie - David Hall
Miss Oldbourne - Ruth Brooks
Reporter, Newsreader etc. - Louisa Court
Producer - Joanne Crabtree
Stage Managers - Louise Blackman and Louisa Court
Set construction - Jeremy Wray
Artwork - Simon Harris
Lighting - Anna Hilgeman
Sound - Simon Harris
Webpage - Matthew Petty
Programme - Ian Ward