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Olivier, by Philip Ziegler. MacLehose Press, £25

Despite efforts of biographers, says Nicholas de Jongh, Olivier, that  phenomenal shape-shifting actor,  is still an undiscovered country

Star-struck or scandal-prone biographers of Laurence Olivier  have already offered us portraits of the man behind the masks, of an actor whose disguises and surprises, physical and vocal transformations, have made him versatility’s epitome. From where did it spring, that fount of passion and power he brought in triumph to those Shakespearean fighting men, Richard III and Othello, Henry V and Coriolanus? Philip Ziegler, a judicious and official biographer of Top Persons from Edward VIII to Harold Wilson, comes late to the field in a book which spends far too much of its time on its knees in dazzled hero-worship.

This is no position in which to find such a serious biographer, and Ziegler’s state of dazzlement sometimes clouds his eyes and mind, leading him to fuzzy hyperbole. The biographer also admits to having “a lack of theatrical background”. He is not that sure of his foreground either. There are significant errors of fact and interpretation. Ziegler suggests Olivier seemed “resentful” in the 1970s that Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud “had struck up a working relationship as well as a friendship which was producing some spectacular performances”. In fact, that relationship had begun more than 40 years earlier when the two were at the Old Vic together in 1930, recurred later and was crucial in 1953 when both of them appeared in NC Hunter’s A Day by the Sea, and Gielgud was arrested for importuning.

The dominant theatre producer of the mid-20th century, Binkie Beaumont of HM Tennent (Ziegler mis-spells the name as Tennant), is described as eschewing the experimental and having “little use for any except the most popular of classics”. How wrong can you get? Beaumont’s impressive production list ranged from Medea, Otway’s Venice Preserved and TS Eliot’s Family Reunion by way of the London premieres of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw.

Having worked his way through 200 Olivier-related books, it would have been valuable if Ziegler had offered some fresh assessment of Olivier’s enigmatic character. “I don’t know who I am… I’m a hollow man,” Ziegler interestingly records him saying to his wife Joan Plowright in mind-losing old age. Now there’s a cue for exploration.

True, Ziegler’s biography conducts a workmanlike trek through the high-born career, with its three marriages, the second to the unhappy, bi-polar Vivien Leigh, and the triumph of the will that surely helped Olivier survive a cluster of late, horrible illness and continue working. It pays useful homage to Olivier’s extraordinary achievement in setting up the National Theatre at the Old Vic and minting the blueprint for its creation on the South Bank. Yet the fact that Ziegler was given first access to 50-plus hours of taped conversations that Olivier made with the writer Mark Amory yields no important revelations. We already knew all too well that the actor was prone to wild temper, addicted to jealousy, prone to insecurity and to a sense of gnawing rivalry that made him anxious about the few actors in his own rank, not to mention the promising young. Richardson treated Lord Olivier with chronic wariness. Gielgud, whom Olivier both admired and also stupidly wrote off as a melodious singer of Shakespeare, behaved with similar caution.

As late as 1975, when Gielgud was in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, he told me Olivier came to see him backstage. “You’re not going to play King Lear?” he asked Gielgud. “I told him I wasn’t - though there was talk of my doing so. I wasn’t going to tell him. I wanted to put him off. He’s so competitive.” 

A youthful Anthony Hopkins went to audition for Sir Laurence while he was playing his Black-and-White Minstrel Othello, and offered to perform the death scene. “You’ve got a nerve,” Olivier retorted, and took a cigarette exclaiming, “I’m so nervous in case you’re better than me.”

Sir Laurence could also be a perfect diplomat who played  at sympathy with whomever he needed to keep on side. Artfully, he kept fending off the interfering Chairman of the National, Lord Chandos, who was keen to get rid of  Olivier’s dramaturg, the indispensable but unwisely provocative Kenneth Tynan. 

That great director Tyrone Guthrie had told the young Olivier that he must always love the characters he played, however awful. Imbued with this spirit of empathy, at the Old Vic he brought in not only Tynan, but also as his deputies John Dexter and William Gaskill, left-wing directors from the Royal Court. Their avant-garde notions of the theatre left a man of his old-fashioned beliefs disconcerted.

Olivier’s National was, though, notorious for failure to secure the services of major actors from his own generation, aside from Michael Redgrave, who was already showing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and soon had to leave. Gielgud appeared twice for Olivier - miscast in both cases. Ziegler defends Olivier on the count of wanting to keep his rivals out. His defence does not convince. Olivier’s successor, Peter Hall, coaxed in Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield and Gielgud again.

If only Ziegler had taken a more critical stance, exploring the complexity of Olivier’s character - with his chronic   yearning for omnipotence on stage, his mammoth vanities and recurring anxiety about his looks. “I can’t act with my own face. I have to be disguised,” he said. There was always a false nose or a false something with which he wanted to adorn himself. He worked on a role by imagining a character’s external looks before delving into the question of what made him tick. He had no time for Stanislavsky’s introspection.

Ziegler does suggest that Olivier’s childhood, during which his adored mother died suddenly and his father treated him with lordly contempt, caused lasting damage. In general, though, the narrative avoids any psychological diagnoses. Some biographers have made something of claims that there was an intermittent and secret gay aspect to Olivier’s philandering, but Ziegler briskly dismisses them with the distaste of a 1970s judge presiding over a distasteful obscenity case. I did, though, once interview a distinguished heterosexual actor who recalled how in the 1960s Olivier “had gone off with his new boyfriend”. I registered surprise. The actor assured me it was a definite feature of the actor’s life. I wonder. Olivier remains to some extent an undiscovered country; or, in his magnificent case, a continent.

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