Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier were two Titans of the theatre. They had monstrous egos, incendiary tempers and a conviction that they walked among the Gods.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to put them in the same stage production?
Orson’s Shadow started off as an anecdote told at a dinner party and has evolved into a stage play that is, mostly, a work of faction created by American actor, director and writer Austin Pendleton.
There’s only one player in the off-stage drama still alive, Larry’s widow, Joan Plowright, and she’s not giving anything away.
But, fact or fiction, Orson’s Shadow had a tumultuous opening on Monday night at the Southwark Playhouse.
John Hodgkinson roars onto the stage as the tempestuous Welles, an artistic genius who was destroyed by peaking too early in a career that was papered with more bad notices than critical acclaim.
It’s a convincing and noisy performance. The voice and the build is right as he presents us with a beast that completely contrasts with that of his sparring partner, the highly strung Laurence Olivier.
Orson’s Shadow opens with Edward Bennett’s frail, stuttering, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan immediately knocking down the fourth wall to talk to the audience about what is to come, dumping hackneyed exposition to give us the cold hard facts.
It’s disconcerting, making us part of the performance, as though we’ve just popped to the pub to chat over the storyline.
Tynan’s gone to Dublin to see his friend, Orson Welles, whose latest stage production, a pastiche of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, called Chimes At Midnight, was playing to empty houses.
Tynan wants to work with Olivier in establishing the National Theatre and he hopes to persuade the great Welles to direct Britain’s theatrical knight in Ionesco’s surrealist play Rhinoceros.
Welles isn’t a happy man and turns on the critic. He also accuses Olivier of destroying his career in Hollywood. But eventually he capitulates, hoping the move will help finance his work.
Enter, with considerable flourish, Adrian Lukis, as Larry, rolling his “Rs”, speaking in that precise clipped diction of the great actor and director.
He storms through each scene like an emotional maelstrom, dominating the dialogue (he actually scowls when someone else tries to speak, biting his lip and fixing them with a steely stare. God forbid if he’s contradicted).
The great thespian is trapped in a dilemma both domestic and professional. His troubled marriage to Vivien Leigh is on the rocks and he has already started an affair with Plowright. On stage he’s suffering nerves as an actor of the old school attempts a modern, absurdist play.
We have to wait until the second act for the two men to square up to each other with the increasingly ill Tynan caught in the crossfire along with Joan Plowright and the unbalanced Leigh.
What is known, for sure, is that Olivier secretly gave direction to the cast behind Welles’ back until a bitter showdown resulted in the American remaining in his hotel while the headstrong actor assumed the role of director.
Gina Bellman has a couple of emotive scenes as the mentally unstable Vivien Leigh although, in this story, I’d say that she was the more balanced of the two. Laurence Olivier frequently loses the plot as he tries to find his motivation and courage with the two women in his life.
Louise Ford excels as the increasingly exasperated Joan Plowright. How on earth did she put up with him?
Meanwhile the splendid Bennett gives a beautifully restrained performance amid the bluster and self-obsession of the central characters.
In one scene the ailing Tynan succeeds in exposing some semblance of compassion in his friends as he struggles to breathe. It’s done with a quiet dignity that stops both Welles and Olivier in their tracks.
This larger-than-life story, about two giants of the stage and screen, is enormously entertaining with powerhouse performances from its cast.
Orson’s Shadow runs until July 25.
Two Titans of the stage and screen, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, almost come to blows when the pair work together on a London play.
Orson's Shadow is a fictional account of what may have happened during rehearsals for Rhinoceros.