Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier Bicker In Backstage Bust-Up

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 39 months ago
Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier Bicker In Backstage Bust-Up ★★☆☆☆ 2

Photo by Simon Annand

Londonist Rating: ★★☆☆☆

American playwright Austin Pendleton’s play Orson’s Shadow is a mixture of fact, fiction and speculation. Its subject is a fascinating footnote in British theatrical history: how two legendary actor-director-managers locked horns when Orson Welles directed Laurence Olivier in Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros at the Royal Court Theatre in 1960. The clash of egos and differences in interpretation led Olivier to fire Welles during rehearsals and take over the production himself.

In Pendleton’s fanciful conceit it is Kenneth Tynan, the celebrated Observer critic and future Literary Manager of the National Theatre under Olivier, who as a huge fan of both men gets them to work together for the first time in the theatre. Welles is hired while performing to half-empty theatres in Dublin as Falstaff in his Shakespearean history adaptation Chimes at Midnight. His career has been in a long, slow decline since hitting the heights in 1941 with Citizen Kane.

Moreover, Welles blames Olivier for ruining his career in Hollywood since his movie version of Macbeth was compared so unfavourably to Olivier’s Oscar-winning Hamlet in 1948. Meanwhile, Olivier has recently had a resurgence by embracing new drama with his success in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, where he met and fell in love with future wife Joan Plowright, also in the cast of Rhinoceros, as his marriage to Vivien Leigh breaks down.

There seems to be plenty of material here for an interesting backstage comedy-drama involving rivalries in work and love, but Pendleton fails to make the most of its potential in what is a pretty pedestrian affair that never really sparks into life. The main problem is that he is too concerned with feeding information to the audience about his famous characters’ lives and careers, which weighs down any dramatic momentum. He tries to get away with this by having Tynan — in ironic, postmodern style — speaking directly to us and mimicking an old-fashioned, creaky drama that gives us the back story, then proceeding to do the same by having a redundant Irish stagehand ask the others ignorant questions so they can fill him in.

Pendleton, who once worked with Welles, seems to be firmly in his camp, portraying Olivier as unwilling to take direction and effectively sabotaging rehearsals, but Welles himself was even more notorious for disrupting other directors’ authority. Most of the cast give ‘semi-impressions’ (albeit with varying success), which is probably the right approach; but for the play to work at some point one should be able to ‘forget’ that they are playing famous people and respond to them directly as characters on stage and this never happens in this European premiere, directed in the round by Alice Hamilton.

John Hodgkinson projects Welles’s larger-than-life presence with a booming baritone voice (even if his accent is all over the place), a mixture of roguish charm and frustrated ambition. But Adrian Lukis’s vain, thin-skinned and over-competitive Olivier doesn’t suggest any of the animal magnetism or virile sexuality he possessed on stage. Edward Bennett’s detached, witty Tynan could be a bit more acidic. Louise Ford’s down-to-earth Plowright is not deceived by Olivier’s game-playing, while Gina Bellman overplays the vampish but vulnerable Leigh like the mentally unstable Blanche DuBois, her greatest role, in a show that is not much more than a luvvie fest.

Orson's Shadow is on at Southwark Playhouse, 77–85 Newington Causeway, London, SE1 6BD until 25 July. Tickets are £18. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 08 July 2015