Stage Blood, by Michael Blakemore - review

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

Stage Blood: Five Tempestuous Years in the Early Life of the National Theatre Michael Blakemore

Faber, pp.359, £20, ISBN: 9780571241378

Stage Blood, as its title suggests, is as full of vitriol, back-stabbing and conspiracy as any Jacobean tragedy. In this sequel to Arguments with England, his superb first volume of memoirs, Michael Blakemore presents us with an enthralling account of his five embattled years as an associate director of the National Theatre.

When in 1970 Blakemore was offered the position by Laurence Olivier, he had a distinguished career as an actor behind him and was already well-established as a successful director.  It was an exciting time: the National was still in formation, several years away from moving into its permanent home on the South Bank; and Olivier was not only the greatest actor of his generation but a man of formidable powers of leadership, brilliantly imaginative and wholly dedicated to the theatre. Blakemore’s colleagues in the company — John Dexter, Jonathan Miller, Kenneth Tynan — were all at the top of their profession. There were bound to be problems, of course, but as Blakemore signed his contract he had little idea that he was starting on a five-year period that ‘ended by becoming the most distressing of my career’.

Dominating the first half of the book is a masterly portrait of Olivier himself. Devious and determined, infinitely seductive, Sir Laurence manipulates his colleagues with both charm and guile: ‘He was listening to me as still as a predatory animal and with a smile on his lips that was razor-blade thin.’ Olivier’s genius, and also his vulnerability as an actor, are strikingly conveyed in Blakemore’s account of rehearsing him in Long Day’s Journey into Night, one of several plays which he directs during this period.

Other members of the company are drawn with an equally penetrating eye. Kenneth Tynan, first seen hospitably dispensing champagne in his elegant house in Thurloe Square, diminishes before our eyes, his flamboyance and panache shrinking pathetically as he succumbs to the disease that is shortly to kill him. By contrast, one of the funniest scenes is an exchange between the author and a disquietingly shifty John Dexter.

John had taken his shirt off and throughout I was distracted by his little white pot-belly, hirsute and as hard as a melon .… He started referring to himself in the third person so I knew something unpleasant was on the way. ‘John’s got something very difficult to say and it may mean the end of our working relationship.’

As well as Eugene O’Neill’s, Michael Blakemore during this period directed several masterworks, among them The Front Page, The Cherry Orchard and a nerve-wracking Macbeth: this was cast with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, who at the time was drinking heavily and as a consequence terrifyingly unpredictable. These detailed accounts of the step-by-step process of constructing the polished product that will eventually be shown to an audience are revelatory. Blakemore writes:

For the director, the first day of rehearsals is his first night, his moment of truth, and the audience he has to win over consists of all the people he finds waiting for him in the rehearsal room.

With admirable clarity he communicates to the reader all the intricacies of the rehearsal process: the tentative first read-through, the crises caused by nerves and temperament, for the director all the highs and lows of exhaustion, rage, anxiety and exhilaration. He makes almost tangible, too, the ingenious trickery often required in set design: in The Front Page, for instance, how to enable Maureen Lipman as the gangster’s moll to jump convincingly to her death from the newsroom window.

Most of the second half of the book is devoted to an account of the régime installed at the National after Olivier retires. The new commander-in-chief is Peter Hall and it immediately becomes apparent that the change is very much for the worse. In place of a director of high principle and unwavering dedication, Hall quickly reveals himself to be a Machiavellian schemer, false, deceitful and very, very greedy: his goal, it appears, is to use the National primarily to enrich himself.

Inevitably this causes distress and dissatisfaction within the company, although to the world at large Hall continues to promote himself as the most honourable and good-hearted of fellows. ‘Peter did a great deal of public smiling, and loved to be photographed with his face creased in mirth.’ The scene in which the author, before an audience of his fellow directors, finally confronts Hall is harrowing in the extreme and I can hardly wait to see it one day played out on stage.

As readers of his earlier work — the memoir and a theatrical novel, Next Season — will know Michael Blakemore is a writer of exceptional gifts.  Heretical though it may be, I cannot help wishing that he would shut the stage-door behind him for a while and concentrate instead on the next book.

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  • Stewart Trotter

    It’s a page-turner. But I think Michael Blakemore should come out and say what he REALLY thinks about Peter Hall….