Orson’s Shadow

Southwark Playhouse, London

© Simon Annand

© Simon Annand

This could be re-styled when `Larry met Orson’, the true story of two monstrous egos.

Austin Pendleton apparently met and acted with Orson Welles. He never met `Larry’ Olivier or the two other parties to this backstage `comedy’ – the critic Ken Tynan and Olivier’s latest amour, Joan Plowright.  He did however encounter Vivien Leigh, Olivier’s soon to be estranged wife. He never forgot her. Or Orson.

This then is Pendleton’s homage, in a sense, to both of them, Orson and Leigh, at a time when it so happened that Tynan was trying to persuade Orson to direct Olivier in a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Royal Court in London.

An historic moment indeed for British theatre was in transition. Olivier, with the other theatrical knights of the realm, Gielgud and Richardson, buffeted by the new wave of `kitchen sink’, social realism drama sweeping was busy trying to catch and ride the wave and turn himself into a `modern’ actor – no mean feat for a performer bred on stylish histrionics.

Pendleton, to his credit, tries to capture Olivier in this transition – in Adrian Lukis’ portrayal played with some flair – and there are some particularly memorable exchanges between him and John Hodgkinson’s large-bellied, Falstaffian Orson in rehearsal – amusing and slightly poignant – as Olivier attempts but fails to adjust to Ionesco’s absurdism and a new theatrical landscape.

But large swathes of it feels like a fan’s letter, full of backstage gossip and detail about the idiosyncracies of some very well known public personalities. Whether it tells us anything we didn’t already know about Leigh’s mounting emotional crises,  Orson’s monumental egotism, Tynan’s brittle ambition or Olivier’s petty perfectionism is debatable.

© Simon Annand

© Simon Annand

Olivier, it has to be said, does not come out of it well except in his devotion to Vivien whom Gina Bellman endows with a certain glamour if unable to overcome some of the more hackneyed lines bestowed on her by the author. Louise Ford, too, as Joan Plowright lacks the youthful northern toughness that evidently proved so irresistible to Olivier.

© Simon Annand

© Simon Annand

Surprisingly, the person who comes out best from Pendleton’s theatrical fantasy is Tynan, at least as played by Edward Bennet (late of the RSC’s much acclaimed Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing paired productions). Bennet, with cigarette distinctively between third and fourth finger, subtly conveys a man of brilliant mind, witty tongue and opportunistic fervour already beset by the emphysema that would eventually kill him – a critic, too, of some diffidence and as his stammer betrayed, highly strung.

How much all of these starry shenanigans appeal depends, I guess, on your appetite for the intimate revelations of stars and your interest in the clash of larger-than-life theatrical personalities. I certainly enjoyed Pendleton’s ability to turn a tart phrase, the cut and thrust of a talented company though director Alice Hamilton’s decision to play it in the round is perhaps ill-judged. It creates intimacy but hides certain crucial moments from view. All you get is a back!

Apparently an award-winner on its New York debut, it’s an American’s eye view of some very colourfully extravagant eccentricities, moderated by a very British intellect (Tynan) but hanging by a very thin thread, I’d say, on the bones of a chance meeting between two cultural giants. Ah well, that’s showbiz for you.

Orson’s Shadow runs at the Southwark Playhouse to July 25, 2015

First published in Londongrip, July 2015