ORSON’S SHADOW Southwark Playhouse, SE1

WHEN LARRY MET ORSON AND KEN AND IT DIDN’T GO WELL…
Sir Larry spreads his arms wide in the rehearsal room and moans “I am a giant in chains!” His director rolls his eyes. The critic-dramaturge in the corner cringes. The leading lady is impassive, decorous, restrained. In the round, encircling these hapless players the audience enjoys a sort of sympathetic schadenfreude. It is 1960.
On the face of it, this is mainly one for dedicated theatre enthusiasts and historians of its 20c evolution . Anoraks, if you like. And critics. It is an imagined passage in the lives of five crucial figures. Kenneth Tynan – wanting a job with Olivier at the new National Theatre – brings him together with his hero Orson Welles, whose film career is in fragile decline and who is gripped by a passion to direct Chimes at Midnight with himself as Falstaff – ideally doing it first at the National. so as to attract movie funding.  So now, through Tynan’s well-meant interference, Welles is set up to direct Olivier in the absurdist Ionesco play RHINOCEROS, alongside his mistress – later wife – Joan Plowright. For Olivier is in the process of leaving the troubled, manic depressive Vivien Leigh.

You see what I mean? If you don’t care about historic backstage travails, don’t bother. But if you do there are rewards in the spectacle of mid-life male egos and artistic frustrations breaking out in a rash of irritable despair, during a time when theatre itself was in transition, as the Royal Court blazed a new trail.  The author Austin Pendleton is a veteran of that era himself, worked with Orson and met Vivien Leigh. And it is true that Welles tried to direct that play, that it became spiky, and that he was indeed struggling to produce Chimes at Midnight and never got either proper funding or a NT slot.  But the detail is imagined, and Plowright – still alive – sees it apparently as purest fiction.

As entertainment, it partly works.  Edward Bennett’s Tynan looks right in manner and physique – looselipped, aquiline, slightly camp. Adrian Lukis’ Olivier is at first disconcertingly bankerly – but as it goes on we are reminded that he was in transition between his high heroic mode in velvet jackets, and his modernization – he had just done Osborne’s The Entertainer. The rolling r’s, the insecurity, the actorly fear all grow gradually more credible.  Welles (John Hodgkinson) is pure magic though: orotund, dryly despairing or lit by creative vehemence, he holds the floor even when sitting in exasperated silence amid nervy gadflies. Louise Ford’s Plowright’s calm dignity stands in contrast to Gina Bellman as an increasingly crazy, ultimately genuinely sad Vivien.

The first act , as Tynan delivers some cleverly mocking setup, feels definitely anoraky: after the interval, though, there is l sharp comedy in a magnificent display of rehearsal behaviour from hell. Olivier sabotages the sour nonentity of the part by playing it as his standard romantic hero, and redirecting Plowright in opposition to both Welles and the author. The director cracks and throws a stool at him, Tynan succumbs to a nervous emphysema attack, Leigh arrives half mad. So it warms up.  But not quite universally enough, I suspect, to convert those without a taste for the day before yesterday’s dramas.
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rating: three    3 Meece Rating

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