Wednesday 15 July 2015

Theatre review: Orson's Shadow

Just as there's a disproportionate amount of novels about writing novels, and films about making films, theatre too has a fondness for shining its light on itself. Austin Pendleton's off-Broadway hit Orson's Shadow, getting its London premiere at Southwark Playhouse in a production by Alice Hamilton, does so with a self-mocking wink at the big personalities and bigger egos the stage attracts: Laurence Olivier (Adrian Lukis) is soon to become the first-ever Artistic Director of the National Theatre, and the respected critic Kenneth Tynan (Edward Bennett - tonight half a dozen of last Christmas' RSC ensemble had come along to watch him) wants to be one of his advisors. But he doesn't really know Olivier that well, and to impress him he decides to find him a director for his latest project, the UK premiere of Ionesco's Rhinoceros at the Royal Court.

One artist Tynan does know is the Hollywood legend Orson Welles (John Hodgkinson,) whose debut Citizen Kane is finally being acknowledged as a masterpiece; unfortunately for Welles it now overshadows all his later work, especially as he's developed such a bad relationship with the big studios that he struggles to get a film financed.

For rather vague reasons, Welles blames Olivier for his own Hollywood downfall, so a collaboration will be a hard sell. In the stronger first act we see Tynan try to bring the deal together, first visiting Welles in Dublin, where his stage version of Chimes at Midnight is playing to empty houses ("Where did you hear we'd been playing to empty houses?" "The other audience member told me.") Next it's to London and to convince Olivier, who's besotted with his new love Joan Plowright (Louise Ford,) something he's not yet got round to telling his fragile first wife Vivien Leigh (Gina Bellman.)

Bennett's Tynan makes an appealing narrator to these opening scenes, and the fact that he's a theatre critic means he's an amusingly impatient one at any hint of theatrical cliché. But having put all his players in place, Pendleton doesn't have much to do with them in the second act, where we follow the - inevitably disastrous - rehearsals. Olivier is over-dramatic and domineering; Leigh frail and mentally unstable; Welles passive-aggressive; Plowright the one voice of calm and sense. These character traits having been established before the interval, when we return all we get is them clashing noisily for the next hour.

Particularly disappointing is the fact that Pendleton doesn't explore more of something he briefly hints at, that the two men's clash is related to Olivier's signature role being Henry V, and Welles relating to Falstaff and therefore seeing Olivier as the betrayer. There's a lot of comic moments and the evening's far from a failure, just one that doesn't deliver on its promise. Based on true events, I can see why throwing these personalities into a room together makes for an appealing premise, but once set up Orson's Shadow finds it has nowhere to go.

Orson's Shadow by Austin Pendleton is booking until the 25th of July at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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