Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Review Orson's Shadow

Orson’s Shadow 
by Austin Pendleton
From an idea of Judith Auberjonois 

Suitable Lives For Treatment 

After a disastrous theatre run of his Shakespeare adaptation Chimes At Midnight, Orson Welles rolls into London in 1960 to direct Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright at The Royal Court.  Olivier himself is in the midst of a marriage break up with troubled film star wife Vivien Leigh and about to leave her for his young co-star

Welles, while hating the play, absurdist French drama Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, is lured by the chance to work with Olivier and raise his profile to find finance for his movie pitches from either the Eastern bloc or the Middle East. Instead the collaboration is mired in acrimony and pettiness with Olivier going behind the exasperated Welles's back, giving directorial notes to the cast.

Austin Pendleton, who acted with Welles in Catch 22 (see 2m 31s), fleshed out this little-known episode with some artistic liberties in 2000 and turned it into a well-received backstage play Orson’s Shadow. Now it receives its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse directed by Alice Hamilton.

Set at a time when television was starting to take hold and just before the onset of new stars growing up with film rather than theatre or radio, this Cold War piece captures the moment of ageing stars caught adrift.

A middle aged Welles (John Hodgkinson) with Falstaffian girth, unresponsive to diet pills as he gulps down multiple steaks, tries to discard his reputation as a one-hit wonder with Citizen Kane. Olivier (Adrian Lukis)  flushed with his success in Angry Young Man John Osborne’s Suez play The Entertainer, albeit harking back to a past age of music hall,  is about to found the National Theatre with enfant terrible Marxist theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (Edward Bennet)

Indeed the travails of Welles and Olivier seem to be presented mostly through the filter of Tynan as narrator, with a soupçon of unreliability, portrayed as a fixer. 

Both rhinoceroses in their own way, the lumberingly obese yet sure-footed Welles and the scheming yet insecure Olivier cross swords. Pendleton also inserts into the mix Olivier’s lover, Joan Plowright (Louise Ford), a straightforward personality of the new acting generation standing her ground between the rivals.

Meanwhile exotic Vivien Leigh (Gina Bellman) floats in like some spirit conjured up by both Tynan’s malevolent yet grudgingly admiring imagination and Olivier’s Svengali impulses. Add to this, a fictional Irish stagehand Sean (Ciaran O’Brien).

Infused with wry humour and a mash up of acting styles from melodrama to naturalism with a gallop through playwriting history,  this ambitious production can be interesting but is also uneven. Despite Tynan’s naturalistic ironic commentary played against the deliberate staginess of the first act, there is a sense of self conscious exposition and name dropping.

The interlacing of acting styles, character and back story finds more purpose in the second act, when Tynan, despite himself,  is sucked into the action and the reason for the play’s title brought into focus. An amber light from TLT and automotive companion.

No comments:

Post a comment