Tuesday, July 7, 2015

'Orson's Shadow' at the Southwark Playhouse, 6th July 2015

The saga of Orson Welles is sobering. After his notoriously panic-inducing radio broadcast of War of the Worlds he went on to write, direct and star in Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane might be the greatest movie of all time; Welles wrote, directed and starred in it at just 26. Sadly from there it was a long, slow decline. Sure there was the odd ray of artistic sunshine, but he gradually collapsed into rotund obscurity, unable to secure funding for his projects and reduced to comedy cameos in crap movies. He ended his career angrily selling peas and playing a planet-sized cartoon robot before dying lonely, fat and broke in 1985. Poor Orson.

Orson's Shadow finds Welles (John Hodgkinson) in Dublin, 1960. He's on stage as Falstaff in a stage production Chimes at Midnight, though it's playing to depressingly empty houses. Arriving to lift him out of his funk is prominent critic and old friend Kenneth Tynan (Edward Bennet). As a connoisseur of quality he cherishes Welles' genius, finding it depressing that he's wasting away in obscurity. In an effort to drag him back to the mainstream he proposes that Welles direct Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the National Theatre.

The hitch is that it'll star Welles' rival and artistic enemy Laurence Olivier (Adrian Lukis). Olivier is caught in a love triangle, trapped between the demands of his  glamourous but manic wife Vivien Leigh (Gina Bellman) and the cool professional beauty of Joan Plowright (Louise Ford). These fractious interpersonal relationships turn the rehearsal space into a battleground, with the elephantine egos of Welles and Olivier the heavy artillery.

It's fair to say that Orson's Shadow partially relies on its audience having some enthusiasm and knowledge of both Welles, Olivier and the broad strokes of theatrical history. A fourth wall busting introduction by Tynan efficiently sets the stage, giving us a broad overview of Welles' career to date. Later expository dialogue fills us in on Olivier's life, knitting together his tangled love life and paranoias. Even so, this could be pretty rough going for anyone coming in blind.

For those who've got a grasp of Welles' filmography and life though, there's a wealth of tiny touching moments. Listening to the man excitedly lie about getting a five picture deal with Universal off the back of Touch of Evil is sad, as is his scheming to raise funds from Eastern European financiers. Similarly humbling is his dogged insistence on not letting projects die; shooting a couple of minutes of Othello here and there, and working on Chimes at Midnight in secret. 

Welles is a hugely recognisable figure, any performance of him treading a fine line between acting and simply mimicry. Hodgkinson, fortunately, stays just on the right side. In a brave bit of writing we hear him booming away before we see him. Hodgkinson can't quite achieve a perfect facsimile of Welles' supercilious, sonorous rumble, but he gets pretty damn close. Physically he's slightly hamstrung by an overly padded costume that doesn't really bear scrutiny at close quarters, but the illusion hangs together. Most crucially, Hodgkinson nails that 'Welles' twinkle' - mischievously smiling with his eyes alone. You can see it in Kane, The Third Man and F for Fake, and you can see it here.

Lukis' Olivier is slightly lesser in comparison. Played almost entirely for broad comedy he's a stereotypical pompous ham - the few snatches of 'acting' we see more reminiscent of William Shatner than 'the greatest British actor of the 20th century'. Still, as far as pompous hams go, the performance is above par. The script finds a man whose brain is knotted, heading off on tangents, with shaky confidence and the frustrating habit of dancing around the subject. He's never less than enjoyable to watch, though is more of a caricature than Hodgkinson's Welles.

It really shouldn't be understated how straightforwardly funny this play is. Be it Lukis' clowning it up with a duster, Welles coming out with outrageous sexual epithets or Tynan's bitchy asides about the worth of critics (which went down a storm on press night), but lurking just beneath the surface is a solidly melancholic core. The smell of failure and wasted talent hangs heavy over proceedings, with Welles' creative decline at taking centre stage. Everything comes to a head in an unexpectedly touching epilogue, where Plowright (the only person in this place who's still alive), gives the characters a quick tour of their pretty depressing futures.

It's quietly heartbreaking to see Welles learn that over the last 25 years of his life he'll only make one more movie. That sadness turns to excitement when he learns that the movie will be Chimes at Midnight. Welles has been confidently blustering through the rest of the play, but here, finally, we see him vulnerable and childlike. "Is it any good?" He tentatively asks. 

In its best moments Orson's Shadow achieves an eerie verisimilitude that makes you feel as if you're in the company of the great man. In its worst it's merely a well-written, comedic farce about two huge egos bonking heads. If you're at all interested in Welles it's an easy recommendation. If you're not, then go watch Citizen Kane. Seriously, watch it. It's not some unapproachable dated black and white melodrama - it's goddamn outstanding and actually straight-up entertaining. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll say "Ahhhh, so that's what the Simpsons was referencing...". Done? Good. Now come and watch Orson's Shadow for the rest of the story.


Orson's Shadow is at The Southwark Playhouse until 25th July 2015. Tickets here.

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