Olivier, by Philip Ziegler
While written by a distinguished biographer, this often inaccurate study of the enigmatic and elusive Laurence Olivier lacks real insight
First at the Old Vic, where he ran the company with Ralph Richardson and then at the Chichester Festival, which he led from its foundation, he spearheaded the movement for a theatre that would engage the finest actors in a wide repertory of work reflecting a sense of Britain’s place in the world.
Ziegler meticulously details the intrigues, the drama and the sheer doggedness of purpose that led to the creation of the three-theatre complex on the South Bank of the Thames that now defines much of British theatre for the world. One of Olivier’s most innovative decisions was the engagement of Kenneth Tynan as literary manager of the fledgling company. Tynan, the iconoclast of British critics, added an intellectual and political edge that was entirely lacking in Olivier’s make-up. Some of his proposals were maddeningly provocative and led eventually to his being sidelined, but his influence has rightly been described by Jonathan Miller as “distinct and crucial”.
This unlikely pair, one an old-fashioned actor-manager steeped in theatrical tradition and the other a highly opinionated, devious, Machiavellian intellectual, led the National Theatre brilliantly and set the course of its repertoire for many years.
Olivier’s departure from the National before Denys Lasdun’s new building opened was squalid and badly handled. Max Rayne, then chairman of the board, informed him that Peter Hall had been chosen to succeed him. Olivier felt, rightly, that he should have had some influence over the choice and was deeply slighted.
It is good, however, that Ziegler sets the record straight about Hall’s treatment of Olivier. It has long been implied that Hall was an intriguer who pushed the grand old man out prematurely and with little ceremony. The facts are that Olivier was the one who behaved petulantly and without grace and that Hall made every effort to pay due respect to a man he clearly revered.
It is difficult to imagine for whom this biography is intended. Olivier’s last stage performance was in 1974, his film work now seems stilted and dated, the scandals surrounding his marriage to and divorce from Vivien Leigh are tame compared with today’s star break-ups, and the National Theatre has become identified with a younger generation.
Although Ziegler is a distinguished biographer, with studies of Mountbatten and Harold Wilson to his credit, this work lacks real insight and is overly dependent on its subject’s uncensored reminiscences. Ultimately, the portrait of the man does him little credit. His vanity, his petty jealousies, his towering rages, his serial unfaithfulness and his lack of intellectual curiosity dominate the account of his life. It is also clear that he felt happiest when being someone other than himself.
Towards the end of his life, he made a devastating judgment that defines him. “The fact is that I don’t know who I am. I have played all these parts and I don’t know who I am. I am a hollow man.”
A sad epitaph indeed.
Joe Dowling is director of the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, and founding director of the Gaiety School of Acting.