REVIEW: Orson’s Shadow, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭✭✭

Orson's Shadow at Southwark Playhouse
John Hodgkinson as Orson Welles and Adrian Lukis as Laurence Olivier, with Ciaran O’Brien as Sean. Photograph: Elliott Franks

Orson’s Shadow
Southwark Playhouse
5 Stars

Is there really more to be said about the Oliviers, Larry, Vivien and Joan? Or Orson Welles for that matter? These were the questions in my mind as I sat down in the Southwark Playhouse for the press night of Austin Pendleton’s play devoted to reimagining the one episode in real life when Welles, Olivier and Joan Plowright all worked together – in a 1960 Royal Court production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros directed by Welles. Amidst the many layers of critical evaluation, biographies good, bad and disgraceful, letters, memoirs and gossip from all sides surely we have a complete picture of both the desperately sad psychodrama of the marriage between Leigh and Olivier and the slow, embattled decline of Welles’ career after its golden beginning in Citizen Kane?

In fact, Pendleton succeeds in taking us well beyond the biographical surfaces and along the way asks some very deep and difficult questions. How do even the greatest talents can lose their way in middle age, and where does the intractable path of duty lie in relationships affected by serious mental illness. He also offers important insights on the role of theatre criticism, the respective merits of a career on stage or in film, how the incidents of personal life bleed into creative work, and on how actors reconcile the alchemy between learned technique and psychological instinct in performance. If that summary gives the impression that this is a purely a play for theatrical insiders, then it is important to say that it is balanced by dialogue that is in turn witty and tender, and visual comedy of situation that provides plenty of fluid movement and theatre business to observe. Pendleton met Vivien Leigh and worked with Welles, so the play is written with an empathy that comes from personal knowledge, but in no way shades into hagiography or special pleading.

Pendleton’s coup in the dramaturgy is to introduce Kenneth Tynan into the equation. Tynan is presented here as the man who persuades Olivier and Welles to work together on the play. This is not true in fact, but it is dramatically apt as he was genuinely a friend to both and wanted to do all he could to revive Welles’ film career and become part of Olivier’s team in the foundation of the National Theatre. He is the catalyst for and commentator on the action at every stage. There are two acts. In the first scene Tynan and Welles talk backstage in Dublin and set up the framework for what follows; in the second we move to backstage at the Royal Court, where we find Olivier fresh from his success in The Entertainer and embarked on the complex process of leaving Leigh for Plowright. In many ways this is the most impressive stretch of writing which offers great opportunities for all the players as Olivier and Tynan joust with one another, Plowright fights to establish her own identity, and the tensions, loyalties and self-destructive manipulations of the Oliviers’ marriage are laid bare in an exquisitely set-up phone conversation. The second act takes us onto the set for Rhinoceros and focuses on the creative differences between Welles and Olivier as the latter struggles to adapt his technique to the demands of theatre of the absurd. The action comes to a head when Leigh makes an unexpected visit to the set and finally each of the characters lay aside their masks and is stripped down to bedrock.

There are six characters in all and each of the players delivers a finely calculated and expressive, detailed performance. There are no weak links and the casting director deserves full credit for assembling a fully complimentary team. In the lesser roles, Ciaran O’Brien plays a young stage manager, Sean, and Louise Ford takes on Joan Plowright. Both these roles are lightly sketched by Pendleton, and neither is intended as a direct impersonation. O’Brien captures well the awkward, gauche hero-worship of a young aspirant, and Ford takes full advantage of the opportunities she is given to show that her character was no cipher and always an actor with a fierce intelligence of her own. She balances well her love and exasperation with Olivier and joins Welles in standing up for modernism in the theatre.

Edward Bennett inhabits Tynan very plausibly. He captures the physical attributes convincingly – the stammer, the cough indicating incipient emphysema, and the exaggerated deference in front of his heroes. But he also demonstrates the intelligence, acerbity, bitchiness and secret desire to be a cherished insider that were part of this critic’s complex personality. Bennet has to negotiate many of the potentially awkward moments when the playwright breaks down the barriers of realism and engages directly with the audience. Occasionally the writing is a tad clumsy here, and the actor does well in taking the train over the points.

As Vivien Leigh, Gina Bellman has two crucial scenes in which to establish the ‘infinite variety’ of her character. Again, there is a good physical match here of both poise and glamour on the one hand and crumpled vulnerability on the other. We need to get a sense of why Leigh was such a compelling siren both on and off screen, and also glimpse her private terrors. Bellman is particularly effective in showing the less advertised aspects of the character: her intelligence and generosity of spirit to others and her wistful self-awareness about her incipient mania and the form it takes. When the mania arrives it is suitably unhinged and out of control.

The biggest challenges here are how to play Welles and Olivier. Both John Hodgkinson (Welles) and Adrian Lukis (Olivier) give impressive physical and vocal impersonations, but the real strengths of their performances and of Alice Hamilton’s supple direction lie in taking them deep into their own personal ‘heart of darkness.’ We get so see beyond the larger-than-life deliberate caricature that Welles presents to the world into his desperation to find any means of pursuing his own projects; and we glimpse the pain and anger and self-disgust of a man who knows he is both a genuine victim of a system and his own worst enemy. Likewise, Lukis takes us below the exaggeratedly clipped, brilliantly polished exterior of Olivier’s facade to show us how he has become a ‘giant in chains self-forged’. How he has become trapped in his own mythology so that he is ill-equipped to embrace professional change. How his desire to impose control on himself and his world is a fearful reaction to the dangers of Leigh’s instability as much as to external pressures; and how change came in all areas when he finally allowed his ‘animal alertness’ as an actor to break through once more.

The play is staged in the round with a pleasing and teasing contrast between the artifice stage convention and informality. The gestures towards setting are practical and functional and do not distract from the verbal duelling of the players, which is the heart and centre of the action. While there have been several productions in the USA, this is the European premiere, and for the quality and intensity of the writing and acting it deserves a long and successful run.

Orson’s Shadow runs at Southwark Playhouse until 25 July 2015

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