“When and where did you hear the rumour that I’ve been playing to empty houses?”
When a play is “based on true events”, there’s always a tricky line to tread as the very nature of theatre is to be, well, theatrical and the truth be damned. And when the subjects are such well-known luminaries as Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier with a side helping of Joan Plowright and Vivien Leigh and rounded off by Kenneth Tynan, the blurring between fact and fiction is even further tested, especially if you know anything about these figures.
Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow centres on Welles’ ill-fated decision to direct Olivier in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, at Tynan’s instigation as the playwright would have it, all three men in their twilight of their careers or at least a crossroads on the part of Olivier. From Tynan’s machinations to make this happen to the rehearsal rooms of the Royal Court where egos clash and sparks fly – though married to Leigh, Olivier’s co-star Plowright was also his lover – it’s a titanic battle between genuine titans.
Which makes it a shame that the characterisations here are ultimately so one-dimensional. Adrian Lukis’ Olivier is basically a cartoonish portrayal of a man already at the extremes, Gina Bellman is hamstrung by writing that only allows her to show Leigh’s declining mental health and not much more, and Louise Ford is a little muted as a Plowright just trying to keep out of it. With strokes this broad, it is hard to feel like we’re actually learning anything aside from stagey people are #stagey.
Ed Bennett gets some witheringly cracking lines as an increasingly embittered Tynan and John Hodgkinson finds (some) dignity in a dodgy padded suit as a Welles apparently forever haunted by second album syndrome. But Alice Hamilton’s in-the-round direction never really landed for me, the inconsistencies of production and play frustratingly epitomised in a mawkish epilogue that searches for an emotional depth that Pendleton has just spent two hours ignoring.