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The Archive: Does Olivier cast a shadow over Archie Rice?

Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer in 1957 Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer in 1957
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Among the many charismatic actors to have been hailed as the new Laurence Olivier down the years, Kenneth Branagh has perhaps been the most self-conscious in making connections between his remarkable career and Olivier’s equally extraordinary journey.

Both triumphed as Henry V, both were concerned to bring Shakespeare to the screen and Branagh played Olivier in the film My Week With Marilyn, earning himself an Oscar nomination in the process.

As he prepares to risk comparisons again by playing Archie Rice, one of Olivier’s greatest creations, in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, London theatre eagerly awaits Branagh’s interpretation of one of the defining roles of the 20th century and one with a truly tragic status. Archie Rice, the broken-down vaudevillian trying to shore up his ramshackle existence in the dying days of music hall, has tempted a number of leading actors – Peter Bowles at the Shaftesbury in 1986, Michael Pennington at Hampstead in 1994 and Robert Lindsay at the Old Vic in 2007, with Michael Gambon starring in a television version in 1993.

For Olivier in 1957, The Entertainer did not simply rejuvenate a fading career. It also sent it in a wholly unexpected direction with momentous consequences for the actor’s private life. Few plays can have achieved so much while reshaping the theatrical landscape.

A number of factors contributed to this. Olivier’s bruising experience directing Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl while his marriage to Vivien Leigh was entering its final chapter had, in a way, thrown Olivier together with Monroe’s husband, the playwright Arthur Miller.

By then, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had opened and caused a considerable brouhaha. Olivier, however, had made no secret of his disdain for the play and its author, but was impressed by Miller’s positive response to the piece. Osborne was summoned to the presence of Olivier and Miller, who must have been taken aback to witness Olivier ladling on the charm over a writer he’d only recently been badmouthing. Olivier had clearly decided that Osborne was the man of the future.

Kenneth Branagh in rehearsals for the current revival. Photo: Johan Persson
Kenneth Branagh in rehearsals for the current revival. Photo: Johan Persson

“Er, you’re not writing anything that might have the littlest opportunity… for, well, me, are you?” He is alleged to have asked the stupefied Osborne, who disclosed that by a remarkable coincidence he was indeed working on something suitable for the greatest actor in the world.

Olivier felt he had reached a crossroads. In an interview with the writer Richard Findlater for the latter’s book At the Royal Court, he summed up his feelings at the time: “My rhythm of work had become a bit deadly. I could feel in this opportunity a great sea change, transforming me into something strange. I felt, in fact, that I was starting a new life.”

In what his biographer Anthony Holden memorably describes as Olivier’s “discriminating opportunist’s eye for the main chance”, the actor had shown remarkable audacity in sending the theatre’s tectonic plates crashing into each other like fairground dodgems. Olivier was seen as the supreme lord of the Establishment, and it is hard to convey 60 years later, the shock and consternation felt at Olivier’s desertion to the other side.

At the same time, there was unease in the higher reaches of the English Stage Company. Surely it should not be welcoming a man who represented everything about the theatre that the Royal Court zealots most despised?

When the show moved to the West End, Joan Plowright, later to become Olivier’s third wife, took over as Archie’s daughter Jean. In her memoirs And That’s Not All, Plowright describes rehearsals: “He [Olivier] was bristling with energy and his smile was full of mischief. It was as though he’d been let off the leash. He obviously adored playing Archie Rice, whom he liked to claim was nearer to him than any part he’d ever played.”

The Entertainer opened six months after the national humiliation of the Suez Crisis in which Britain, allied with Israel and France, attempted to retrieve the Suez Canal from the Egyptian leader Nasser without consulting the Americans. Uncle Sam then effectively blackmailed the Brits, forcing an undignified retreat. It was a pivotal moment in the UK’s history when thinking Britons came to realise that our imperial days were numbered. Osborne’s imagination saw our national decline reflected in the simultaneous disappearance of the music hall.

Given the status that the play has achieved, there is a surprisingly churlish tone to some of the reviews. According to the Manchester Guardian: “Though maudlin and only partially successful, the new play generates some heat and raw emotion. It is given the immense advantage of being acted by a splendid team of actors led by Sir Laurence Olivier.”

Whatever the critical reaction, there could be no doubt that Olivier had reclaimed his place at the head of the top table. He wrote to Osborne: “Thank you for the most deeply engaging part, perhaps barring only Macbeth and Lear, that I can remember – certainly the most enjoyable.”

He summed up the experience in a quote in the Holden biography: “It made me feel like a modern actor again.”

The excitement the performance generated was felt far beyond Sloane Square. It drew a stagestruck schoolboy, Michael Pennington, to the Royal Court.

Michael Pennington in 1994
Michael Pennington in 1994. Photo: Laurence Burns

“I’d read my copy of Plays and Players, and I knew all about the politics of London theatre and how significant it was that Olivier was working at the Royal Court,” Pennington recalls. “Whatever Olivier was in, you had to see. I found him less moving than Redgrave or Scofield, but there’s no doubt that his Archie was a fantastic feat.”

But, 60 years on, has the play survived outside the circumstances under which it was written and the dominance of one performance?

“I don’t think that the part of Archie is still under Olivier’s shadow,” says Pennington. “It’s a little bit long now because people then had an appetite for Osborne’s brand of rhetoric. But the play still speaks to us. You think Archie is the most amazing gift to an actor, which it is, but I don’t think [the play] is simply a vehicle for Archie. When you bring in Jean the daughter, Phoebe the wife and Billy the father, it becomes a recognisable family drama, like something out of Eugene O’Neill.”

Having recently played the title role in two separate productions of King Lear, Pennington has no hesitation comparing Archie with Lear.

“Archie’s story does have a Shakespearean arc to it, and playing Archie has something in common with playing Lear. You admire Archie’s courage, the bravery that says the show must go on. It must have been heartbreaking to see the end of something at which you excelled but for which there was no longer any demand.”

In his book On Acting, Olivier sums up the experience of The Entertainer.

“Archie leapt off the page at me and he had to be mine. I began to steep myself in the old music hall tradition… The winds of change were there all right. I was in step with the new wave, in step and marching. There he [Archie] sits in the bright spotlight, alone, laughless but smiling. A bowler hat, a cane, eyebrows. A gap in his teeth and dead eyes.”

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15

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