June 22, 2010, by Peter Kirwan
Me and Orson Welles
This film comes as something of a holiday having recently written a performance history of Julius Caesar for the RSC Shakespeare single edition. Telling the story of Orson Welles’s seminal production of the play at New York’s Mercury Theatre in 1937 from the point of view of the actor playing Lucius, it’s a lovely slice of theatre life in pre-War New York.
Christian McKay (Orson Welles) and Zac Efron (Richard Samuels)
It’s also incredibly insightful about the production’s role in the history of the play. The first scene at the Mercury sees the actors fighting over Welles’ ruthless cutting of the text, including George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) complaining about the streamlining of Antony’s role, hitherto considered the dramatic core of the play – not strictly true in terms of the play’s entire history, but spot-on in terms of early 20th century trends. Another subplot concerns the role of Cinna the Poet, played by Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), and the dispute between actor and director over the importance of the role. In the shadow of war which pervades the film, the significance of this role gradually becomes more apparent – and, of course, one of the most important things about this production was its role in reintegrating the scene as essential to the play. In the final performance, it becomes the single most impactful moment of the play.
As a backstage drama of the trials and practicalities of putting on a play, this was surprisingly gritty and really captivating. As a main plot, of a young boy’s introduction into a grown-up world he’s not ready for, it rather reminded me of An Education. Pleasingly, considering Efron is something of a Disney poster-boy, his horrifically naive accusations of "immoral" behaviour in Welles, and his complaints against being treated "unfairly", didn’t result in overdue self-discoveries and a change in behaviours; instead, it led to him being unceremoniously dumped from the company and the adult life and sent back to school. There was no place in this very practical world for drippy idealism.
So, surprisingly good film and fascinating recreation of a seminal production. Catch it if you can!