“A critic is a man that knows the way but can’t drive the car.” So coined Kenneth Tynan, who in Austin Pendleton’s play finds himself locked in the boot while two jealous drivers wrestle for control of the wheel, ignoring the critic’s muffled pleas to at least agree on one side of the road. Orson’s Shadow sees the titans of the age, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, slung together to work on London’s 1960 debut of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (a piece, with fetching irony, about thick skins, or the lack thereof). Alice Hamilton’s irreverent production will catch the eye of the gossip-mongers, but this showdown between Welles on his final theatrical production and Olivier at the height of his power (and vulnerability) isn’t just one for the theatre geeks.
The casting is lucrative, particularly in Edward Bennett’s Tynan, who exudes a charming rapport with the audience, embracing his role as narrator with lackadaisical warmth even as he begins his long, gasping journey to emphysema’s end. Adrian Lukis’ Olivier is obliviously imperious, winningly neurotic as the king of pentameter kings. Louise Ford’s Joan Plowright is a plummy, plucky joy; an eye-rolling prize yanked between two King Kong-sized egos. Meanwhile Gina Bellman’s Vivien Leigh, if a little restrained by a telephone conversation in the first act, brings her manic charm to moving, mirthful and tempestuous effect in the second. Ciaran O’Brien is a wide-eyed delight as Sean, the ever-curious stage manager adopted by Welles, our touchstone in this world of celebrity giants (“I heard he fucked Rita Hayworth.” “Well, he was married to her.”) But it is John Hodgkinson who cuts through the evening with Welles’ grumbling iceberg girth. You can’t help but root for a man that eats several meals of steak a night, sluiced down with claret, while confessing with deadpan glumness that it was he who was first offered the role of Scarlett O’Hara.
The laughs come thick and fast and more often than not are unashamedly brutal. Olivier’s “My mother died when I was twelve” is fantastically topped by Welles’ “My mother died when I was nine!’ Tynan, wry and waspish in the role of theatrical whip, of course outdoes them both. The Scottish Play superstition is mercilessly tossed about like a live grenade; fitting ridicule for an anachronism that still sees actors ejected from rehearsals. And there’s a tart zing of criticism tossed out for the critics themselves – a guilty pleasure for those of us in a profession fascinated by the scenery but without a clue as to how the clutch works.
“There is nothing more beautiful than the happy moments of unhappy men. This might serve as a definition of art.” So wrote Tynan in his diary in 1971. In Pendleton’s Olivier and Welles there is – and no doubt was – such unhappiness. But the flashes of humour, courage, conciliation and revelation that made them heroes (flawed, but heroes nonetheless) are present here too, and it is enough to sustain our interest as much as if they were princes or politicians. A play that could have become haughty in its concern with a privileged and perverse elite quickly establishes itself as something else: a richly funny piece about how we communicate with each other while burdened with the imagined eye of the world upon us. It’s difficult to stand up straight and talk to each other while we labour under the weight of past failures or future ambitions. Yet it’s worth a try. Others will no doubt get pernickety about the dabbling of facts and liberal impersonations. But here at the Southwark the ghosts of theatrical history find a happy home indeed.