How the son of Larry chose his own direction

Theatre/ the Oliviers
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The Independent Online
THE PIERCING eyes and clipped vowels are familiar, but Richard Olivier hasn't got the looks to be a matinee idol like Laurence Olivier his father. He's glad. "I've seen the negative side of fame. I don't want to be famous, or glamorous, or a tabloid item," he says, and he means it. "I've seen that you get burned by it, and frankly it isn't worth it."

So, instead, Olivier Jr is standing in the stalls at the Greenwich Theatre with a script in his hand, giving instructions. "Can we do it again, Joan?" he asks and she does, because she is a professional: Dame Joan Plowright, the young director's mother.

As Britain's theatre community honours its finest with the Laurence Olivier Awards tonight, Richard can finally be said to have come out from his father's shadow. His revival of Terence Rattigan's In Praise Of Love is a West End hit, with Peter Bowles in the lead role, and another one is on its way: If We Are Women, starring Richard's mother, is previewing at Greenwich before a possible transfer.

"I felt I had further to climb, to start with," he said in a break between rehearsals. "Now, for some reason - maybe because dad's been dead for five years - there isn't that immediate pressure any more. When I first started work, every actor I met was nice and friendly and was waiting for an invitation to come home with me."

Richard was born in 1961, when his father was already 54 and at the height of his powers. Laurence himself said Hollywood, the stage and the demands of being director of the National Theatre tended to push family life into the background, and his son has described his upbringing as deprived.

"I know how much dad was winged as a human being by the amount of fame he got early on. Shot in the foot, really. Personally. It can stunt personality if you get famous too young. You're not fully developed. As soon as somebody looks at you and says: `You're great at that, you're the best in the world', you say `Ooh, am I?' You don't need to keep working at it."

His father was physical and loving, but unable to communicate with his son on a deep level or offer him advice and constructive criticism, even when Richard began studying to be an actor. In his teens he was taken to Hollywood as personal assistant to his father, helping him to deal with the deterioration in health caused by cancer.

"My relationship with my mother has always been close. It got quite close in my teenage years when dad started getting ill. I was asked to take on responsibilities that I wouldn't have had if Dad had been younger and fitter. We were working together as a team to run things and help him as much as we could. That felt very nice for a while, but it got to the stage where I needed to break away."

Comparisons were inevitably made when he first took to the stage, and they were not flattering. "I felt the pressure. I was always far too self- conscious and far too judgemental of myself and other people and I didn't enjoy it. As soon as I started directing, when I was about 16, I felt a freedom in it. Partly because it was out of the footsteps, the shadow."

He read drama at UCLA and formed a theatre company in Los Angeles with Tim Robbins. He trained as a director in Nottingham, going on to his first West End play : he directed Willy Russel's hit Shirley Valentine at the Duke of York's Theatre.

He married Shelley, a Canadian who works as a holistic health consultant. Together they helped care for his father in the last 18 months of his life. The couple now live in a Victoran terraced house in Fulham, with their two young children Ali and Troy, and Shelley's teenage daughter from another relationship, Kaya.

He is a passionate advocate of the Men's Movement, attending workshops and weekends intended to unlock hidden feelings. It has helped him come to terms with the past and develop skills for the present. "Being a director involves a bit of fathering. A bit of psychologist. A bit of nannying. Also, a lot of listening. I come in with ideas and instincts and impulses, but it has to come out of the group of actors that are working on it. We work to create the ensemble. Compromise is the order of the day."

He first directed his mother four years ago in the J.B. Priestley play Time and the Conways. "I was very nervous then. After that I went through a phase of thinking that I didn't want to work with her ever again, because it would always seem as though she would be taking me under her wing. I think I've just actually matured enough to realise that if people want to say things you can't stop them.

"Growing up in a theatrical family you can always feel slightly estranged, because the work is always the most important thing in people's lives; as an artist you have to dedicate yourselves totally to the work in hand. Therefore to work with my mother is a way of us coming together and cementing our relationship, because we're both working on our art together."

Despite the early pressure, he sometimes regrets not acting. "You don't get the same buzz from directing. It's more long-term. All you can do on the first night is sit at the back of the theatre wringing your hands and biting your nails."

The family have nothing to do with the running of the Laurence Olivier Awards, presented annually by the Society of London Theatre, but they do attend as guests of honour. "Now at least we don't have to go and sit in boxes. The first few years we were up there like the Royal Family, which was deeply embarrassing. Just to go as a member of the profession is fun."