The decision to take in a lodger is always a risky one, what with fluctuating hydro rates, cleaning deposits and collecting the rent in a timely manner. And, of course, there’s always the risk that your tenant may end up impregnating you, sleeping with your brother and murdering your elderly father.
Such was the case in Joe Orton’s seminal play Entertaining Mr Sloane, a pitch-black comedy detailing the lives of Kath, her brother Ed, their dad and the inscrutable lodger who changes all of their lives. Kath (played by the brilliant Fiona Reid) is a lonely spinster living adjacent to a dump with her sickly father, Kemp (Michael Simpson). Frustrated and bored, she thrills at Sloane’s arrival one afternoon, especially because he is looking for a room to rent. Kemp is less enthusiastic and certain that he recognizes the young man (played by Xtra cover guy David Beazely) as the murderer of his former employer, but Kath brushes aside his concerns and opens her home (and her legs) to the new lodger.
Things become even more complicated when Kath’s brother Ed (Stuart Hughes) arrives for his weekly visit. It’s a perfunctory gesture, given Kemp’s refusal to speak with his son, citing Ed’s purported “felony in the bedroom” as cause for the snub. Clearly conflicted by his sexuality, Ed nonetheless begins to unlace the suffocating bonds around his libido as he becomes infatuated with Sloane’s mysterious appeal. The unlikely foursome continue in this vein for several months, until jealousy and an unexpected pregnancy lead to suspicion, confrontation and murder.
“Sloane is fascinating in that he’s completely ambiguous and ambivalent, whether it’s in his intentions or his sexuality,” says Brendan Healy, the director of Soulpepper’s upcoming production of the Orton classic. “This was written in 1964, so for me he represents the Baby Boom generation that was brought up on TV and pop culture. He’s anachronistic; he’s rock and roll. He’s every parent’s nightmare.”
Healy has long been an Orton fan and wasn’t about to pass up the chance to direct the play despite an already-heavy workload as artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
“It’s just an amazing play, and of course Orton is a hero of mine,” he says. “I love the outlaws of the art world, the people who stand outside of society and make commentary and challenge what they see as hypocritical. Orton, like Oscar Wilde, was able to be both inside and outside of the society of the day.
“My first experience of Orton was Prick Up Your Ears, the film of his biography. It’s a scary story, and I was quite young, at an age where I was figuring out my own sexuality. The image of gay masculinity that Orton projected was one that scared me and yet attracted me as well.”
For the uninitiated, Orton’s own story is every bit as chilling and complicated as the stories he crafted. Born to a gardener and a shoe factory worker, the future playwright endured life on a council estate and bouts of severe childhood asthma before landing a scholarship with London’s renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). There he met Kenneth Halliwell, aspiring novelist and heir to a modest stipend. They set up house together as creative partners and lovers, until their arrest in 1962 for defacing library book covers with naughty pictures (now on exhibit in a British museum).
Almost impossibly, the two received jail sentences of six months for their heinous crime, but it was this enforced separation that allowed Orton to come into his own as a writer with a razor-sharp wit and a loathing of social corruption and hypocrisy. His ensuing plays became counter-culture hits, even as the relationship with Halliwell began to unravel. In August of 1967, Halliwell murdered Orton in a fit of jealous rage, upon discovering the playwright’s plan to leave him for a new lover. A grisly end fit for any of Orton’s fictional works.
“It’s weird to think about this show, how he wrote it, and the grotesque nature with which he died,” Beazely says. “In a way, it’s reflected in the play, really.”
The actor is fascinated by his character’s amorphous nature and the process of unravelling Sloane’s motivations and intentions with his hapless hosts.
“I think it would be really easy to play this character as a psycho who uses his body and his mind to win in any way possible, but I love his instinctual nature, his primal ability to survive at all costs.
“We talk quite a lot about whether he’s a sociopath or not. You can figure out the behaviour that makes someone like that, but Mr Sloane is hard to pin down. He’s like the taste of water; you don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely something, and it can be different for everybody who experiences him.”
Born in Saskatoon, Beazely began his career at Calgary’s Mount Royal theatre school, before relocating to Vancouver to study drama at Studio 58. His move to Toronto three years ago was less about work than a need for challenge and change.
“I love Vancouver,” he says. “It’s so beautiful, but I like the dirty grind of Toronto so much. It’s so different from where I’m from. Saskatoon gives you the flavour of a city, while still feeling a little small. But I feel like I grew up on the Prairies with a nice idea of space outside of myself, which helped me figure out how to have space inside as well.”
Beazely still feels a connection to Canada’s grain belt but admits life there can be a little challenging for someone of the LGBT persuasion. “Growing up as a gay guy there, well, you have to learn to roll with the punches,” he says. “It was right before things started to turn, with gay-straight alliances and such.
“My parents were supportive, but it was very much a ‘Well, okay, but don’t talk about it too much’ sort of thing. So I became sort of like a confirmed bachelor. A 17-year-old confirmed bachelor.”
That same calm endurance has served Beazely well in the rough-and-tumble world of professional acting, but Entertaining Mr Sloane has given him a new perspective on being gay in a world that has begun tacitly to accept homosexuality — as long as it’s kept muted and subdued.
“Orton poked at that ‘Keep calm and carry on’ attitude so well,” Beazely says. “I think he was saying, ‘No, don’t keep calm! Get out there, go wild and give blowjobs!’”