The Playgoer: The Olivier Centennial

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Olivier Centennial

Olivier backstage:Titus Andronicus, 1955 (Directed by Peter Brook).

The Guardian celebrates Larry at 100 with a nice photo spread and some powerful testimonials, such as that from Michael Billington:
As man and actor, Olivier was obviously not without flaws; he was fiercely jealous of his pre-eminent status and, when tired, could lapse into a tenor bark. But, to those who never had the luck to see him on stage, I would warn against the facile temptation of dismissing him as the supreme ham. Acting inevitably changes with each generation. Olivier is still the benchmark for his combination of intuitive intelligence and outrageous physical daring...
One of Billington's main points is that since Olivier effectively retired from the stage in the early 70s, an entire generation now has only seen him on film.

Check out this story from another tribute. It's a story I've heard before, about Olivier doing "Long Day's Journey" (a performance now on DVD) toward the end of his stage career:
The Guv'nor, as Olivier was sometimes called, was not a man to avoid taking physical risks in the pursuit of theatrical magic. In O'Neill's text, there is a moment when the father (played by Olivier) "gets heavily and a bit waveringly to his feet, climbs up onto the table and gropes uncertainly for the lightbulbs ... he turns out the third bulb and sits down again heavily".

Pretty straightforward - just an ordinary stage direction. Not for Olivier.

He mounted the table with some difficulty and slowly unscrewed the bulbs, burning his fingers quite painfully. Then he looked for a way to get down. Eventually he decided on a route and moved backwards to the edge of the table. Once there he started to totter, so he steadied himself by bending forward to place his forefingers on the tops of two whisky bottles. How was he to extricate himself from this impossible position without either stopping the play, injuring himself or both?

With a mighty effort, he rose from the bottletops and tried to steady himself. Just as one could bear the suspense no longer, he stepped back, launched himself into mid-air, and landed with a backward run of three or four steps to regain his balance. At every performance the audience responded with gasps of relief, involuntary laughter and spontaneous applause.

But it very nearly wasn't so. In one rehearsal, the moment came for him to do the table business. The first part went well enough, but when it came to the backward recovery, a chair was directly in his path. Olivier went right over the top of it and somersaulted across the room, his momentum halted by his head coming into contact with a desk at the far right of the rehearsal space. He lay under the desk, deathly still. For a full 10 seconds, nobody moved.

Finally he stirred and the stage manager, Richard Mangan, ventured over. To our earnest enquires - "Are you all right, sir? How about some tea, sir? How about a brandy? How about both?" - there came no reply. After a pause, Olivier stirred and requested that Richard be so kind as to go to his office and look in the second drawer down on the left, where he would find a spare pair of spectacles.

As Richard hurried away, we noticed that Olivier's glasses were smashed and there appeared to be blood spattered about his nose and temple. Michael Blakemore suggesting that rehearsals cease, and that Larry take the rest of the afternoon off so that further medical attention could be arranged. Olivier was 64 years old and only recently recovered from a crippling thrombosis.

But, before there was any time to reply, Richard had returned with the glasses. Olivier put them on, remounted the table and went through the entire sequence again, this time perfectly executed. It was as fine a display of courage, professionalism and leadership as I've come across - and wholly typical of the kind of man he was.

Yes, it's a bit bravura. But not a bad way of dramatizing the irrational desperation of James Tyrone's penny-pinching.

Hopefully we can retire the Olivier=ham cliche that keeps resurfacing. Like all great actors, he had some outings not as well judged or as inspired as others. And despite some great, great film performances (from the easy charm of the early Divorce of Lady X to the middle-aged bitterness of Carrie to, yes, even that crazy old Nazi in Marathon Man!) maybe film was not his natural medium. And like many greats, he did some roles for the money. (Ahem, Clash of the Titans.)

But it essential to understanding him as a stage actor that more than anything he sought to actually overturn the rhetorical tradition of 19th century acting with an aggressively physical and psychological approach (whether or not you call it "method") that profoundly influenced the generation of classical stage actors that came after him.

If you're curious, his complete filmography is here.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Thanks for this. I must confess to having passively bought into the 'ham' stereotype without even having seen many of his films. Good occasion to check them out.