In 1960 two giants of 20th century culture, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, were hired to direct and star in a production of Ionesco's absurdist drama Rhinoceros at London's Royal Court Theatre, then at its peak as a hot bed of theatrical innovation. This play by the American actor turned director Austin Pendleton, which premiered in LA, explores this fascinating encounter between the giant egos at a time when Olivier was trying to painfully extricate himself from Vivien Leigh and set up with the more grounded Joan Plowright, his co-star here. It is therefore a play that requires you to care about theatrical history and these luminaries and blaming it for being about luvvies is like blaming Ascot for being about horses.
At this stage Welles was well into his pill popping decline. His whole career was, sadly and unfairly, perceived as one long trailing off after the heights of Citizen Kane. Olivier too was feeling like a has-been, although his clever re-invention via The Entertainer had just taken place. They both, it turns out, hated the play but saw it as the next card they needed to play to keep relevant, or at least solvent. The third giant who features is the legendary critic Ken Tynan who became Olivier's dramaturg at the new National Theatre. Here, and this is a diversion from the facts, he convinces both to bury the hatchet of old Hollywood enmities and to collaborate. He then acts as peacemaker in the inevitably rocky rehearsals where Welles accuses Larry of not being able to dispense with his old externalised style of acting and of lacking the guts to disappear in the role of this 'little man'. The play starts out in Dublin and Welles' gormless young Irish sidekick Sean (Ciaran O'Brien) accompanies him to the Royal Court as a gopher/ASM. Welles wittily ploughs him for evidence of his own and others celebrity currency.
Edward Bennett perfectly captures Tynan's combination of archness and languid superiority while John Hodgkinson booms like a sealion as the giant Welles. Adrian Luis succeeds in the unenviable task for any actor of incarnating Olivier and gets the cocked neck, the slight hiss of the voice and that habit of always being "On", just right. Louise Ford struggles though in the underwritten part of Plowright, a Northern woman who, one imagines even at this tender age, was no shrinking violet.
We get diverted from the play within the play, in more ways than one, with the arrival of screen legend Vivien Leigh, played here in a ravishingly glamorous performance by Gina Bellman. In a difficult role she manages to elicit our sympathy for the tortured star, who had what would now be termed bi-polar syndrome. As a manic phase slowly erupts she seduces Sean, who gets more than he bargained for.
We first see her in a rather clumsily blocked phone scene, typical of director Alice Hamilton's in-the-round staging, which never really liberates the piece. The play itself is an actors' play, packed with gems for the leads. In a very witty early section Tynan breaks the "fourth wall" to fill in the back story but after that it never really coheres as a drama beyond a series of anecdotes, some of them fictional. We don't get a clear take on where Pendleton is going with the material and too often he gets easily distracted down byways, albeit sparklingly witty ones. It is a wonderful wallow for fans of theatre and film history though.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk