Orson’s shadow looms heavily in Austin Pendleton’s play about the prolific director; not only over the protagonist but over the entire play which whilst fascinating and faithfully performed, struggles to overcome its creative shortfalls.
Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, incredible icons in their time, brought together in one room. That’s the play’s real hook; an exploration into the lives of these larger than life people. It’s a fascinating subject – when Welles and Olivier teamed up to create a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Royal Court in London, it did not go well and what might have been a huge moment in cinema and theatre history went largely unnoticed, as did much of Welles’ talents after he was forever in his own shadow after Citizen Cain. Unfortunately, like its titular character, this play, although clearly containing strokes of genius, also often struggles to find its feet.
Watching actors play actors and critics (Edward Bennet is a brilliant Kenneth Tynan, Orson’s dear friend and critic) is often a curious thing. Particularly if you’re an actor or a critic yourself. It often takes you out of the action, reminds you that you’re watching a performance. There’s clearly an awareness of this feeling in the play’s occasional meta structure which breaks out of the drama to allow a character to talk to the audience about dates and personal opinions, as though looking back in a journal. But that’s all these meta moments do and they often feel like missed opportunities. Why weren’t these meta moments turned into striking cinematic monologues to bridge the gap between these theatre and film icons? And delve deeper into the psychological states of these typically tortured artists? They’re not nearly stylistic or committed enough and often just draw your attention to the limitations of the production.
For a play about one of the most innovative directors of our time, the direction is very pedestrian – with props here and there which often get in the actors’ way as well as the audiences sat in the round. The play oddly feels dated, stuck in the time it takes place, which seems at odds with the narrative which constantly reminds us how Welles was ahead of his time.
The actors too, often struggle to find their own skin in these larger than life roles – that’s not to say the performances are not impressive; John Hodgkinson certainly emits Welles – he’s got the trademark sneer down to a T. And Adrian Lukis exudes the theatricality of Olivier with vocal and physical precision. But the problem is we don’t really get to see the real people behind the icons. We just see them as they were most famous for and the performances, at times, border on stereotype imitation. Olivier is flamboyant and whimsical, Vivian Leigh is manic. Of course that’s probably a perfectly fair portrayal, but there seems to be a layer that the actors have not yet fully found and which the script only scratches the surface of. We almost get there with Gina Bellman’s brilliant and disturbing portrayal of Leigh’s manic depression, but the role doesn’t feel wholly hers, but it may yet. There’s a fantastic and heart-breaking biopic all about Vivian Leigh just waiting to be made.
There are fantastic moments. The second act erupts into side-splitting hilarity and aching drama as we watch Welles attempt to direct Olivier, and we see Vivian Leigh lose control. But there’s an unevenness and sad lack of inventiveness to the production. What’s more it feels long and many of the scenes could do with a healthy edit to sharpen up the otherwise intelligent, witty and well observed dialogue.
It’s definitely worth seeing, particularly if you’re interested in Orson Welles (and why wouldn’t you be?) But it feels like it could have been so much more.