Orson’s Shadow: Southwark Playhouse

The Orson’s Shadow programme Introduction by playwright Austin Pendleton explains little is known about his play’s true story.

This is the potentially fascinating meeting between two titans of stage and screen, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, to discuss Welles directing Olivier in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at London’s Royal Court.

Set during a tremendously turbulent time in Olivier’s personal life and, with Vivien Leigh and Joan Playwright central characters it should be theatrical heaven. Unfortunately it isn’t, at least not in Southwark Playhouse’s production. I doubt this play would work anywhere.

John Hodgkinson physically fits Welles but there any resemblance ends. Although assistant Sean (Ciaran O’Brien) was far better, well-played and amusingly gormless, this is taken too far under Alice Hamilton’s clumsy direction.

The dialogue’s filled with obscure film references, which from most of the audiences’ reaction, or lack of any, miss their mark. Jokes about Welles’ weight were more obvious but equally unfunny. Theatrical superstition equates Macbeth with bad-luck so perhaps this play shouldn’t mention it so early on.

After a half-hour, I was still unsure where this was going. Welles wallows in self-pity taking fading fame out on poor Sean, by now a one-joke wonder.

The scene with Olivier was better; Adrian Lukas captures his clipped consonants. Louise Ford gives a strong performance as Plowright and it was interesting to see their relationship before they marry but by their reactions the audience were still confused. One potentially poignant scene discussing Olivier’s son is squandered as an excuse for another unfunny attempt to amuse.

The action finally begins when Edward Bennet as arch critic Kenneth Tynan arrives. Both Olivier and Welles share grudges against him, albeit for separate slights. This also causes a further rift in Joan and Larry’s complicated relationship.

Any progress though is destroyed with the entrance of Gina Bellman’s appalling Vivien Leigh whose attempt at ice-cool glamour is at best a little girl playing dress-up. At her most paranoid and coping with the horrors of Leigh’s manic-depression the scene between Olivier and Leigh should bring brilliance but lacked any of the vulnerability required by Bellman. Confused, convoluted, much of the blame rests with the awkward direction, though awful lighting and milking every joke for all it’s worth doesn’t help.

The second act’s tighter but Hodgkinson’s accent, which was barely mid-Atlantic has been completely lost at sea.

When the long-awaited confrontation between Welles and Olivier finally comes everyone’s too confused and/or bored to care. Like poor put-upon Sean by now the audience has endured plenty of punishment. Although we’ll probably never know, would Olivier really put up with the abuse he gets from Welles? The scene between the two goes on forever.

More Marilyn Monroe than Vivien Leigh, Bellman steals every starlet stereotype imaginable: big dark glasses, full-length fur, stilettos – you could forgive the two-dimensional costume if her acting wasn’t so one-dimensional. The scene between her and Welles is embarrassing.

An interesting story, this could have been brilliant but sadly like the play it purports to portray, too many obstacles stop it ever coming together. The principal’s are caricatures and too much detail’s forced in.

The sub-plot about Tynan’s health, although a big part of the critic’s own story adds little to the play and seems tacked on. Yes the breath is probably an actor’s most important instrument but I doubt many in the audience care. I certainly didn’t.

Welles bellows: “We need to reach a decision about who’s directing it, that’s the problem!” I know how he feels.

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