Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 9 July 2015

Orson’s Shadow

Southwark Playhouse ⋄ 1st - 25th July 2015

The strangeness of critics.

Rik Baker
Credit: Simon Annand

Credit: Simon Annand

‘Who am I? I’m no-one’, says Kenneth Tynan in Austin Pendelton’s portrait of an imagined triumvirate between Tynan, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier during rehearsals for the Royal Court production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in 1960. In effect, he sums up the role of the critic, now even more so than then: we’re not oracles, we’re human, and for all our apparent belligerence on the page, our aim is to establish a dialogue between an audience and the play they have witnessed, and between directors, writers, and actors and the work they have created. The merit of Pendleton’s play, which opened off-Broadway some fifteen years ago, lies in the fact that by placing a critic on-stage, and one as stammering and self-deprecating as Edward Bennett’s Tynan is, it sets up this dialogue in advance, allowing its audience to witness live and at firsthand the paradox of the discrepancy between personality and the power of the written word.

Historically speaking, it’s unlikely that Tynan was involved in the production of Rhinoceros any more than that he knew Welles and had no doubt met Olivier in connection with the proposed project to build a National Theatre, which would open at the Old Vic in 1963 with Olivier as its first Artistic Director and Tynan as its literary manager, before finally moving its current premises on the Southbank in 1976. But Pendleton’s play doesn’t purport to be a biographical account of these men’s lives (the liner notes in the programme make this much clear). It’s more of a historical theatre game of ‘what if?’: what if the shrinking critic Ken Tynan was compelled to act the middle man between these two giants of Twentieth Century theatre, Orson the precocious American director of Citizen Kane gone to seed and Larry the Shakespearean collusus playing catch up with the contemporary theatre?

Edward Bennett’s performance carries Alice Hamilton’s production as much as Pendleton’s writing of the character redeems an otherwise flimsy conceit of breaking the fourth wall in a supposedly empty rehearsal room. By turns effervescent and insubstantial, humouring Welles during one of his tirades one minute and damming up in the presence of a conniving Olivier the next, Bennett is the epitome of that awkward theatrical fish, the critic, forever justifying, but never participating in the action. Both John Hodgkinson as Welles and Adrian Lukis as Olivier give us a good impression of the egoistic scale of these two stalwarts, as does Gina Bellman as Olivier’s troubled wife Vivien Leigh, but they are all of them hampered by a script that is at best anecdotal, at worst skin-deep.

With the exception of his Tynan, Pendleton’s portraits concentrate on legend at the expense of those behind it, so that we get glimpses of Welles’ bathetically Falstaffian dwindling behind the declamatory ranting, and glances of Olivier’s self-consciousness behind the facade of his thespianism, but nothing like a full sense that these were real people beyond the caricatures with which posterity is fond of remembering them. Perhaps because her image has accrued less notoriety publicly than that of her late husband Olivier’s, Louise Ford’s Joan Plowright is far more credible as a real person than the Hollywood stars towering over her, her understatement asserting itself in a world of bristling masculinity and emotionally trampled female talent.

Alice Hamilton’s decision to stage Pendleton’s play in the round is a choice one inasmuch as it invites us into the peccadillo-littered lives of Orson and his cohort while providing a constant reminder that this is after all a theatre (a decision which does at least lend licence to Pendleton’s sometimes abrupt slips into direct audience address). But it’s also the Royal Court circa 1960, and if the decor of the Jerwood Downstairs is notably absent, Max Dorey’s excellent set more than makes up for it with a glut of theatrical clutter, giving the impression that this is one of many rehearsals in a venue sustaining more than just this one production, and if this one flops then, well, maybe the next one will be a success.


Rik Baker

A London-based writer and actor, Richard Baker is a member of Fourth Monkey Theatre Company, and has previously reviewed theatre for Broadway Baby at the Edinburgh Fringe. He is the founder of The Scribe Revue, the theatre reviewing arm of the Leeds-based Scribe Magazine. When not acting or reviewing, Richard also works box office for The Print Room in Notting Hill to pay the bills.

Orson’s Shadow Show Info

Produced by Emily Dobbs Productions

Directed by Alice Hamilton

Written by Austin Pendleton

Cast includes John Hodgkinson, Edward Bennett, Adrian Lukis, Louise Ford, Gina Bellman and Ciaran O'Brien




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