Orson’s Shadow – Southwark Playhouse

Orsons Shadow  3 (small)  Louise Ford (Joan Plowright) and John Hodgkinson (Orson Welles) Photo Simon Annand

It might sound reminiscent of the gossip pages in glossy magazines; two legendary actors battling it out in clash of the egos. One who can’t shake peaking success at an early age and the other trying to free himself of an unravelling wife to pursue his new lover… but the drama that unfolds is largely fiction in Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow.

The historical facts are correct and anchors the play in 1960 when infamous critic Kenneth Tynan (Edward Bennet) unites theatrical greats- Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles – to stage a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Royal Court. Welles is in the director seat and hung up on his failing success in Hollywood that he blames on Olivier. He casts Joan Plowright (Louise Ford) to star alongside ‘Larry’, which leads to the breakup of Olivier’s marriage to the magnificent yet wavering Vivien Leigh, whose confidence was bashed by a slating review from Kenneth Tynan for Cleopatra.

Their intertwined lives give so much fascination for a world I can only imagine. Going behind the scenes of an Olivier/Welles rehearsal is the stuff of dreams but with Tynan’s involvement of the audience you feel very much a part of the drama, drawn into their intimate space to experience their vulnerabilities and insecurities first hand. It’s made ever more accessible by director Alice Hamilton’s decision to stage it in the round, you observe every shaking hand, derogatory look and sweat on the brow.

John Hodgkinson’s Welles is grand in both stature and presence, he commands the stage beautifully and is simply captivating to watch. Equally Adrian Lukis plays Olivier with overbearing perfectionism yet steeped with self-doubt. To have these legends dissected and their insecurities laid bare feels at times heart-breakingly sad but utterly compelling, particularly the decline of Vivien Leigh. Gina Bellman beautifully captures the vulnerability of a woman so in despair she is prone to explosive outbursts.

There’s shouting, a lot of shouting, which gets to the point of being excessive then Welles throws in a witty backhander and the tension breaks to roars of laughter from the audience. This rollercoaster ride through the backstage corridors of theatre’s greats is hard not to enjoy – there’s humour, sadness, brutality and warmth in equal measure.

This tangible drama is wonderfully entertaining and you begin to realise it doesn’t matter what is fact or fiction, Orson’s Shadow fully quenches a purveyors thirst and invites you bear witness to some magnificent performances.

Reviewed by Becky Usher
Photo: Simon Annand

Orson’s Shadow is at the Southwark Playhouse until 25th July. Click here to buy tickets