RICHARD THE IRON HEART
The youngest son of Laurence Olivier spent agonising years trying to come to terms with his father's greatness. Now he has; and, he claims, it's made a man of him
Sunday 28 May 1995
Yet the apparent vulnerability of the eldest child of Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright may be deceptive. By most measures, he is enviably contented and secure: happily married, a confident father and a reasonably successful theatre director. Until recently he had two plays (In Praise of Love, with Peter Bowles, in the West End; and If We Are Women, with his mother and Diana Quick, at the Greenwich Theatre) running simultaneously in London.
He is also confident in his position as, arguably, the leader of the nascent British "men's movement" - and brave enough, or tough enough, to laugh off the mockery that someone in such a position inevitably attracts. For the past two years his Wild Dance group has been running workshops in which up to 100 men at a time abandon business suits and BMWs for a weekend to drum and dance and share stories around a camp-fire, seeking their "genetic inheritance" and learning, in Richard's words, to "express emotions that because of cultural conditioning normally never get expressed". Based on the work of Robert Bly, whose "Iron John" movement has attracted thousands of followers in America, the Wild Dance workshops have made Olivier the prime proponent of such work in Britain. Hundreds of men have already attended his workshops; according to Brian Bates, professor of psychology at Sussex University, "He's probably the prime mover in bringing attention to personal development for men" in Britain. Next month, Olivier's Wild Dance Events company begins its most ambitious programme of events yet, a series of mixed-sex "reconciliation" workshops in "ritual, mythology and gender", culminating in July, in the wooded grounds of a Sussex country house, with a four-day residential men-only retreat devoted to "visions of purpose, struggle and healing" (pounds 285 each, or pounds 235 if you bring a tent). Next month also sees the publication of his first book, Shadow of the Stone Heart: a Search for Manhood. Its subject matter is the quest - Olivier's own, and modern man's generally - for a satisfactory version of masculinity.
What would his father have thought of all this? "I don't think he'd have understood," Richard sighs. "Joan [Plowright] said that when she started doing meditation and relaxation early on in their marriage he couldn't take it seriously. If your whole life is dedicated to 'doing', anything that brings it into a state of 'being' is not to be taken seriously." The "mythopoetic" work that attracted Richard to the men's movement - working with myths and poems as metaphors - has a good deal of similarity to theatre work, and sometimes the two cross over, with Richard using men's workshop exercises with actors, and acting exercises in his men's workshops. But Lord Olivier wasn't a method actor, and he might have found too much madness in these methods.
"Larry was frightened of that sort of thing," says Joan Plowright. "I think he thought the only way he could express all that was on stage. But I know that Richard's been on a search since he was a young boy."
THAT SEARCH took on a new intensity in 1989, when, after a long period of illness, Lord Olivier died. Richard had recently returned from America and was struggling to establish himself as a theatre director in Britain. His father's death had an unexpected effect. "I couldn't cry," he recalls. "I always used to be able to cry at plays and movies, but never at life. And then my father died and I shut off from everything. I was trying not to feel anything at all."
He threw himself into "manic work mode" - a common masculine avoidance technique. He had seen his father do the same (indeed, his anger at that was, he says, one of the feelings he was trying to avoid confronting). But it didn't seem to help. For a start, his work wasn't quite so absorbingly glamorous as his father's had been. And his emotional disconnection - or petrification - seemed to lead to more pain, not less. Before long his two-year-old marriage was "in the falling apart stage". "When are you going to put as much effort into your family as you do into the people you work with?" he remembers his wife asking.
Then, early one morning, after yet another marital row and a night spent sulking and sleeping alone, he was walking in the garden of the Malthouse, the Olivier family's retreat near Brighton, hung-over and miserable, when he found himself gazing at a small statue which stands at the foot of a tall, stately poplar tree. It was a statue of a boy.
Richard had bought the stone boy for his parents a year earlier, shortly after his own son, Troy, was born at the Malthouse (in Lord Olivier's study, where the ailing actor was able to see his grandchild before the umbilical cord was cut). It is not a sinister figure, and there was no profound significance intended - "I just thought they should have a masculine figure in the garden, as all the others are women." But then, looking at the stone boy that miserable morning, Richard wondered if there had not been some subconscious symbolism. Was it not, he wondered, a metaphor for himself, petrified and emotionally stunted in the shadow of his father's greatness? Was he not himself a little stone boy? He realised that he needed help.
"I wasn't succeeding in avoiding the things I was trying to avoid by working, and the work itself wasn't terribly successful. I had to stop and start looking at what I didn't want to look at," he recalls. Three years of therapy followed, in Britain and America; and what began as a personal "voyage round my father" became a greater odyssey, metamorphosing into a quest for the meaning of masculinity at the end of the 20th century.
It was perhaps inevitable that this quest should take him back to America: for it was there that he had met and married Shelley, a Canadian "holistic practitioner" and dance therapist seven years his senior. (Richard had moved to California in the early Eighties, having failed to fulfill his father's dream of getting into Oxford and the Oxford University Drama Society. He trained to be a director at UCLA, then spent two years working as assistant director to his father's friend Tony Richardson in Los Angeles, before returning to England in 1988.) Shelley had long been interested in the "dream work" that the men's movement likes to explore, and had encouraged Richard to be receptive to "alternative" ideas. So when Richard became dissatisfied with conventional one-on-one therapy it seemed natural for him to gravitate towards the consciousness-raising "ritual men's workshops" of Robert Bly, Michael Meade, James Hillman and other leaders of the American Men's Movement.
Richard remembers his trepidation about attending, with Shelley, his first, mixed-sex meeting under the tutelage of Robert Bly; and, a week later, a second, men-only session on "male initiation and the grief of its absence". Yet the experience proved liberating. It was, he says, an enormous relief to discover that so much of the anger and alienation he felt was not specific to him, but to his gender.
Of course, there were differences. Many sons feel anger at emotionally- distant fathers, for ex-ample, but at least Laurence Olivier was taking his energies out of the house in a way that brought joy to millions, and Richard clearly has a great pride in that which wars with his memories of childhood neglect. Other fathers expend their emotional energy on a thankless treadmill and leave their children nothing to show for it. But, as Richard says, "When you're little you don't care that your father's going off to play Othello - you just know he's not there for you."
We all die a little bit inside, Richard feels, with each unhappy childhood incident that tells us to cut off the connection to the injured part of our psyche. He could feel that happening, he now remembers, "when my father locked me out of his room when I was having night terrors; when the nanny I was so close to for four-and-a- half years left; when I was sent off to a strict school at the age of 10." If boys learn that they shouldn't cry at such times, he believes, they will become unable to in the future.
Merely to become aware of this was a significant breakthrough in Richard's life. But what proved scarcely less liberating was his discovery of the power of the workshops themselves. "What's so amazing about going into 'ritual space'," he enthuses, "is that there you have access to memories and feelings that you don't have normally. You have no phone calls or faxes or television, just drumming and listening to stories and getting deeper into your own psyche. Things that sound like bullshit in this space have a poetic meaning down there."
And so the quest changed. As he learnt more about himself, and about the way people like Bly worked, and about the similarities between this kind of work and his own work in the theatre, Richard began to feel that he might have something to offer. In 1993, he began to organise his first Wild Dance workshops in Sussex. He seemed to have found his vocation.
DO THE MEN at his Wild Dance workshops really go wild? Do they wear animal-skin loincloths, and howl at the moon? Richard laughs, somewhat self-consciously. "We just wear jeans and T-shirts, or whatever we feel comfortable in, and we don't howl at the moon. But we do do some things that might appear silly."
These things include chanting to show support for a man whose son had died; carrying each other in "trust" exercises; wearing animal masks; and loosening up the emotions in wild, spontaneous dances to the accompaniment of rhythmic drumming. According to Professor Bates, who has led some workshops with Richard, "His workshops don't go into emotional issues in such a self-consciously direct way as the Americans do. He'll help people work out their problems in dramatic scenes which can be amusing or entertaining. Many American attempts to work with the Men's Movement have fallen on stony ground here."
"I still get pretty self-conscious when I do those things," Richard confesses. "That's the reason I'm not an actor, that I can't give myself up totally to them. But I find just making the effort does help. You may be looking stupid and feeling fairly stupid but then there'll be some feeling or some physical thing that will just connect with some memory and make it work."
There is nothing particularly startling about his work, for anyone who is familiar with the Iron John movement, except perhaps for its air of being relatively sensible. His movement, he claims, creates neither Iron John wildmen nor Ironing John wimps, but well-balanced "real men". What's a "real man"? Well, apparently you can't tell him by his outward show. "It's about what's going on inside," Richard tries to explain, "not about sharing the housework or childcare." He is particularly scathing about SNAGs, or Sensitive New Age Guys, who, he claims, store up emotional problems for themselves because they ignore their primal masculine instincts.
Do most men come voluntarily? "Some come because their wives thought it might be a good idea, or just to observe with some suspicion, but most come because they know if they don't do something they are going to crack up or get divorced or do something extreme." Men's Movement work strengthens such marriages, he argues, by teaching men to listen. "Listening is something men really need to learn," he says. "A man can find it painful to listen to his wife, his children, his friends, talking about problems he can't fix, and it's important for men to learn how to hold these feelings without shutting off, and to learn to listen and sympathise."
He also claims a wider social purpose for his work. He sees the violent gangs which are a growing problem in Britain and the US as "young men who, without a meaningful system of beliefs behind them or elders who know what they're doing, are trying to initiate themselves into manhood and ending up killing each other.
"Maybe because we've lost that ancient stuff, those initiation rites, one way we can safely explore those aggressive influences is to go out in the woods and run around the campfire and beat drums - and howl! That may have a real release and healing purpose."
WHATEVER you make of such teachings, it is difficult to read Shadow of the Stone Heart without being moved. The book is almost painfully revealing about Richard's feelings of rejection and inferiority - the immature boy of an aging father (Olivier was 54 when he was born), bullied at school for being "a late physical developer, cheeky and fat", growing into a man who still felt like a child even after becoming a father: a stone child who had hardened his heart against hurt as he believes so many men have. (That workaholic husband or alcoholic father may also be a hurt little boy whose emotional growth was stunted.)
It also recalls the emotional confusion he felt as a result, he believes, of being thrown closer to his mother at the age of 16 - because of his father's illness - just at the time when boys traditionally break away from the maternal influence to join the warriors. "When my father was too frail to decide how to spend his time, my mother and I had decided for him. And I had enjoyed it. I had relished the victory and the fact that, in those moments, she was mine and I was preferred over him. She would ask my advice, we would consult together at one end of the dining table while my father became the child, helplessly looking on from the other."
He recalls "the sadistic pleasure" he felt in not talking loud enough or repeating things for his father to hear. The milk of human kindness battled with the angry bile within him, and he still feels queasy at the thought.
THERE IS a Men's Movement doctrine which holds that boys must "leave their mother's house" by the age of seven and align themselves with their fathers; and "leave their father's house" by the age of 13, to be "initiated" into adulthood by a male mentor. In many ways, Richard Olivier is still in his mother's and father's house. He and Shelley and their children happily cohabit at the Malthouse most weekends with Joan Plowright and Richard's sisters Tamsin, 32, an actress-turned-restaurateur, and Julie- Kate, 29, an actress. Olivier left the house to all of them. "It was always 'Dad's house', particularly at the end, because he spent so much time here," Richard says softly, "and so many of his energies are still here."
Indeed; in fact, they are almost tangible, emanating from the beamed sitting-room where Olivier would sit by the fire, thrombotic legs raised; from the long table at which he jovially presided so many nights and, latterly, sat in silence, with grizzled head supported between gnarled hands; and from the many photographs and memorabilia of heroic, earlier incarnations - godlike and youthful as Henry V; leaping athletically for his final thrust as Hamlet; a powerful black panther in middle-age as Othello, sensuously sniffing a rose.
But there are other energies there too, other powerful personalities whose presence can be felt. At the moment, it is Shelley who has adopted the traditional homemaker's role, but it is hard to imagine her accepting this role for long. Shelley often gives the impression of being the dominant one of the partnership. It is she who reminds Richard to cut his hair, and who rises at dawn to prepare homemade soups and brown rice salads to keep him healthy, and who acts as unofficial personal manager, and who will be helping with the new mixed-sex "reconciliation" workshops in June and July. Her north American assertiveness isn't always appreciated in England, she knows. As one theatrical colleague somewhat cruelly comments, "I sat next to Richard at a dinner and he kept talking about his Men's Movement and how good it was to be able to escape from women and family responsibilities and go out into the wild - and knowing Shelley I could understand why." Richard simply says: "I love the company and challenge of strong women, and strong men."
He and Shelley still act like newly-weds. They "cherish that rhythm of just being together as a couple or with the kids", as Shelley puts it, draping herself sinuously around her husband. They're touchy-feely and proud of it: there's a large colour photograph, for instance, prominently displayed on the living-room wall of their London home, which shows Richard and Shelley sprawled sensuously together on a bed. Ask Shelley what women get for their patience while their men go whooping it up in the wild, and she replies: "A warrior, a protector. Someone who knows how to be there for them." "A real man, I hope," is Richard's answer. "The idea," he adds, "is to be able to come in the door as 'the warrior' and five minutes later be 'the lover', 'the father', 'the husband' - and not carry on heading for the phone, opening mail, etcetera."
How successful a warrior is Richard? They claim not to be wealthy, and do not appear to be particularly so, apart from their share of the Malthouse. Richard drives a modest-looking E-reg Volvo and explains that most of his father's money was eaten up by medical bills towards the end of his life. Shelley's sleek black-and-white dress looks like a Romeo Gigli number, but she swears it is only inexpensive Phase Eight. "Where would I get that kind of money?" she laughs, mentioning "pounds 300 a week" when the question of Richard's earnings comes up.
In any case, this is the sort of family that is keen to claim the primacy of the pursuit of happiness over the pursuit of wealth. Their terraced London house, filled with childish clutter and noise, seems worlds away from the "household of fame with nannies, housekeepers, the lot" in which Richard recalls being brought up. (They have no nanny; Richard has a lot to say about the "expensive deprivation" of well-off children through nannies and boarding-schools.)
The atmosphere at the Malthouse seems happy, too. One of Richard's greatest joys is to watch his children, seven-year-old Troy and five-year-old Ali, playing in the lime tree "arches" - a bower his father planted for him and his sisters in the Malthouse gardens. "By the time it grew big enough to play in, we were too big to play, so it's great to see Troy and Ali using it, and how much they love it here."
Joan Plowright is convinced that Richard's involvement in the Men's Movement has been "very helpful to him. My daughters and nieces, young women moving about with the young men of today, feel that a lot of them are lost, scared of commitment and in turmoil about their identity and role in life. I'm sure that if more men went to these workshops, we'd get a better understanding between the sexes, and between parents and children."
Richard's sister Tamsin agrees. "Richard is a much more centred person now. Before, he was flailing. And I've been to some of his workshops. It's fascinating. One's hackles rise at first, because you think, 'Oh God, it's going to be weird and wacky.' But I didn't find it like that."
Richard and his half-brother, Tarquin, are distant but cordial. Richard sums up the gulf between them succinctly: "He was Eton, Ox-ford, Coldstream Guards; I was Bedales, UCLA and the theatre." He and his sisters are closer. Tamsin and Julie-Kate don't seem to have found their father's fame as terrible a burden to deal with as Richard has. A photograph of Tamsin inscribed "To Darling Dada with all my love" sits on the piano in what is still thought of as Olivier's study at the Malthouse.
Richard's feelings for his father seem doomed to remain more ambiguous, but even his sadder memories are now recalled with affection. There is a suggestion of a smile on his face when he remembers the effort the elderly Olivier made to watch his sporting prowess at one of his schools, and his awkwardness in dealing with such gestures of paternal support. "He managed to find his way to another school, and I was on the football field, feeling totally comfortable, when I saw him coming around the corner and froze. Suddenly I felt I had to do well. It became a performance. I was too embarrassed to go up to him at half-time - I just went with the other boys to the bus to get our oranges. And we didn't have the intimacy for him to call me over. By the end he had left."
The small boy's pain is still there in his voice, but there is also a sense of maturity. After six years of dancing and drumming in literal and emotional wilderness, Richard Olivier can feel at peace in his father's house. He can even look at the little stone boy with new eyes, and has noticed that he is carrying a tambourine. !
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