Orson’s Shadow at the Southwark Playhouse
Orson’s Shadow attempts to explore the lives of two great artists of the stage and screen, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, as they come together to put on a play during a contentious time in both their lives. Unfortunately, the result is an underwhelming stage documentary that loses itself in the myriad of plot lines that it tries to follow.
The writer, Austin Pendleton – having spent much time researching the lives of the characters – has mistakenly assumed that this fascinating historical study would translate into an engaging stage performance. The audience is expected to follow: the stagnating Welles struggling to find financial backing during the latter part of his career, Olivier starting to build the National Theatre while his marriage to Vivien Leigh collapses, Leigh’s mental deterioration, Olivier’s affair with Joan Plowright, and Welles close friendship with the critic, Kenneth Tynan. Like a jam jar filled with too much jam, this plot may look rich and enticing from a distance but, upon exploration, is found to be too sticky; in the end, it makes a mess all over the stage.
A further obstacle preventing the audience from engaging with the story is the portrayal of Welles (John Hodgkinson) as a corpulent, aggressive and bitterly ageing man. Hodgkinson’s Welles has two emotions – anger and mild contempt – and is stoic to the point that he may have easily been replaced by a physically imposing statue with a poor American accent. Gina Bellman’s Vivien Leigh is an unconvincing manic-depressive, telling members of the audience how insane she is too many times for them to believe it. The two most interesting characters by far are Tynan and Olivier, played beautifully by Edward Bennett and Adrian Lukis, who blend their characters’ egos with their vulnerabilities in a way that makes them very enjoyable to watch.
All the characters in this play seem to have personal relevance to Pendleton’s life. He has spoken of how he once met Leigh, acted with Welles, and how Joan Plowright has always been an inspiration to him both “as an artist and a human being”. This play seems to be Pendleton’s attempt to immortalise artists who have inspired him, by depicting a time in their lives which, while certainly tumultuous, hasn’t enough direction to create effective drama.
Orson’s Shadow is on at Southwark Playhouse from 1st July until 25th July 2015, for further information or to book visit here.