Agent provocateur and a brief threat to society’s moral decency in the Sixties, playwright Joe Orton was “The Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility” and all-round hell raiser. As with any good icon, his life was short but his infectious sense of mischief and humour still shine bright. Amy Rosa reports.

In the last 40 years Joe Orton’s work has been remembered but rarely celebrated. Known more for his grizzly demise and out-gay antics in the homophobic Sixties, Orton was a taboo smasher, being openly gay when it was still illegal was the mere pinnacle of his assault on society’s rigid ideals. To describe Orton’s plays is to describe suburban tales of sex, death and lunacy.

In more recent times Orton’s work has reached new audiences thanks to the likes of comedienne Matt Horne taking on the lead role in ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ and Matt Lucas portraying Orton’s lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in the biographical play ‘Prick up Your Ears’. Orton’s macabre wit was only matched by his handsome devilish good looks and cheeky sense of style: “With insanity, as with vomit, it is the passerby who receives the inconvenience.” – Joe Orton

John Kingsley Orton was born New Year’s Day 1933 in Leicester. Orton’s early life and upbringing was a standard one of many in post-war Britain, he was expected to leave school and get a job and eventually a wife and family. Higher education or bettering one’s self wasn’t for your average working class male, yet despite the restraints of his working class background, Orton nurtured a growing interest in the theatre during his teenage years.

In 1950 after a course of elocution lessons and a host of amateur productions under his belt he landed a place at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). It would be at RADA a year later that Orton would meet the man who’d change his life forever, Kenneth Halliwell. Orton and Halliwell soon became lovers and partners in crime; the most famous of their pranks was subtly altering the covers and blurbs of library books. Eventually they were caught and both spent six months in prison in the summer of 1962.

“It affected my attitude towards society. Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallised this. The old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul… Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing. I wasn’t involved anymore. And suddenly it worked” – Orton in 1964

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