Funeral Games by Joe Orton

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BBC Radio 4, 11 July 2008

Funeral Games was first presented by Yorkshire Television on 25th August 1968 and starred a young Ian McShane. It was first produced as a stage play in 1970.

When religious conman and cult leader Pringle (Martin Jarvis) receives an anonymous letter alleging his wife Tess (Lisa Sadovy) is having an affair with a defrocked Catholic priest, he hires young thug Caulfield (Phil Daniels) to investigate.

Although it appears Tess's visits to the defrocked priest McCorquodale (Tony Rohr) - who has murdered his wife Val and buried her in the cellar under a pile of coal - involve nothing more compromising than a blanket bath, Pringle believes it's his right to kill her for committing adultery. But Pringle is persuaded to tell people Tess has gone away, in the hope suspicions will be raised and he will develop a trendy reputation as a killer. To aid the deception, Tess agrees to live with McCorquodale.
However, things go awry when a news reporter begins demanding proof of the murder and accuses Pringle of being innocent …

Funeral Games’ plot operates according to its own logic, spinning off wildly in various directions, enabling Orton to make fun of organized religion for its obsession with ritual. But this does not explain why the play retains its interest today; by comparison with other works making fun of Christianity (e.g. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)), its subject-matter seems quite innocuous. What Orton does possess, however, is a love of linguistic absurdity. At times during Peter Kavanagh’s hilarious production it seemed that the characters resembled music-hall comedians competing with one another to see who could deliver the funniest lines. Despite the fact that Pringle wanted people to believe that he was a killer, he insisted that he was carrying out God’s will. Caulfield, a photographer’s model, was put “on god’s payroll” and agreed to pose nude at the same time. It is customary to talk of Pinteresque dialogue; from the evidence of this production, I think that Funeral Games is a great example of Ortonesque discourse.

What made this revival even funnier was the way in which all four actors treated the absurdities of their lives with deadpan seriousness. Martin Jarvis’s Pringle appeared a paragon of virtue, even while threatening to shoot his wife or fight McCorquodale. Initially Phil Daniels’ Caulfield recalled Mr. Sloane in his willingness to be all things to all people; a hired thug, a detective or a nude model. Once he became embroiled in the plot’s absurdities, however, his attitude changed, as he desperately tried to make sense of what was happening around him. His decision to join “god’s payroll” was prompted by a desire to find stability in an increasingly absurd world. Tony Rohr’s McCorquodale, a defrocked priest with a taste for S&M, not only had Tess as his live-in lover, but could also enjoy the pleasures of the flesh with Caulfield. Perhaps Lisa Sadovy had the most difficult task of trying to flesh out an underwritten role (Orton’s women are mostly sexual predators, almost as if the author were frightened of them), but nonetheless showed how Tess was perfectly happy to live a double life as Pringle’s wife and McCorquodale’s lover.

In the Radio Times, listeners were asked to approach Funeral Games as a period-piece, the product of a time (1968) when theatrical censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was about to end, and dramatists at last had the freedom to write about whatever they wished. Kavanagh’s revival demonstrated something more – that Orton was one of the greatest comedic talents to emerge from Britain in the twentieth century, the creator of timeless classics which still have the capacity to shock as well as entertain, nearly four decades after they were first staged.