Southwark Playhouse, London – until 25 July 2015
Guest Reviewer: Amelia Forsbrook
35 years after his death, Kenneth Tynan still has the power to slice through the loudest chatter a rabble of theatre-goers can summon up. In Orson’s Shadow – Austin Pendleton’s knowingly smug biography of the founding fathers who devised the blueprint for the National Theatre – the legendary critic, played by a dashing Edward Bennett, strolls onto the stage before the lights go down. Right from his nonchalant entrance and through a meta-fictional commentary that sees him refusing to leave his profession in the wings, Bennett’s character casts himself as the driving force behind this show.
That being said, Orson Welles’s character – taken on by the excellent John Hodgkinson – is furnished with many sharp and keenly applied digs, seen most strongly when he wisecracks that Kenneth has “a brilliant mind, but it contains no information”. In turn, when asked to verify rumours that Orson’s movies were playing to empty houses, Tynan humorously quips that his source was “the [only] other member of the audience”. There are some smashing witticisms here, which are complemented with the subtle references to films of this era. These allusions are alive in the re-appropriated anecdotes and reclaimed quotes that subtly show that, no matter how hard these characters try to escape, they remain explicitly tied to their industries.
Orson’s Shadow gives us a veritable megamix of some of theatre’s biggest wigs: Gina Bellman’s Vivien Leigh brings the flailing glamour; John Hodgkinson equips Orson Welles with a grand and spirited pessimism and Adrian Lukis’s Laurence Olivier fights to live up to his biographical reputation, spouting elaborate flights of wordplay between crude attempts to soothe his rocky love life. The problem here, though, is that Orson’s Shadow remains very much in the shadow of the stars that illuminate its centre. Its obsessively tight script, rife with lofty Southbank aspirations, pushes too hard at the walls of its sterling Off West End Home and this – together with the dropped names and all too regularly detonated in-jokes – gives the air of a play that seeks to pose as a historical piece before doing its time as a fresh new work. It’s a shame, given Pendleton’s evident respect for Rhinoceros – Eugène Ionesco’s exhilarating 1959 play that united characters Olivier and Joan Plowright, under Welles’s direction and Tynan’s inspiration – and the creative powerhouse that is the Royal Court.
Welles’ decidedly less-cultured man-servant Sean (Ciaran O’Brien) exists solely to reinforce the other characters’ frightful superiority. With his regional accent cementing his status as high society’s whipping boy, Sean’s efforts work only to underline this play’s blinkered devotion to its famous subjects.
Olivier, Welles and Tynan have all the power in this piece. They can debate the nature of strong directing, can strive to distance themselves from that Hollywood hit or that weak review. They bicker and embrace – safe in the knowledge that their each and ever move signposts monumental shifts in Western performance. They can strive for greatness or yearn for simplicity. Yet, despite a raging effort from Bellman and a modestly graceful attempt from Louise Ford’s Plowright to steal the final scene – “I’m the only person in this play who’s still alive, so…let me wrap this up”” – our female characters come across as mere accessories to their male counterparts’ might.
In Pendleton’s piece, five household names are incapable of sharing the spotlight though it remains unfortunate that the two mighty yet weakly-sketched and under-scripted female figures are left inhabiting these shadows.
Runs until 25th July