Simon Callow in The Times today on Me and Orson Welles -- "...they've got it all right"
When you know a lot about someone, as I do about Orson Welles (having written two fat volumes of a biographical trilogy over the past 20 years), you rather dread fictional treatments of that person. So I approached the new film Me and Orson Welles very gingerly, especially since it is set in the Mercury Theatre in the 1930s.
I was at drama school when the Welles virus first infected me: I read about the Mercury in Run-through, a book by John Houseman, a good portion of which is devoted to describing his relationship with Welles in the 1930s, culminating in a magnificent description of their work together, first for the Federal Theatre Project, then the Mercury Theatre. That’s the life for me, I thought: working 20 hours a day, under the charismatic leadership of a young genius — stretching oneself and the theatre to the very limits, defying convention, electrifying the audience, changing lives.
Houseman was describing a golden period in the theatre, and these are rare. Welles in his early twenties set off a series of brilliant theatrical fireworks that were unlike anything that had come before — were, indeed, unlike each other; each production had its own particular style, although iconoclasm was the rule. Of course, Welles went on to other glories. Made internationally famous — notorious, perhaps — by his radio version of The War of the Worlds, which panicked people thought was a report of an actual Martian invasion, he directed Citizen Kane, his first film, when he was 25, but then he fell out with the studio, and somehow nothing was ever the same again. His films were often taken away from him and re-edited, his radio career petered out, his theatre work imploded spectacularly with a musical version of Around the World in 80 Days that all but bankrupted him. In Europe he made extraordinary films such as Othello and Chimes at Midnight (known in some countries as Falstaff); none of them made any money. He acted in other people’s films to raise money for his own; he did commercials and chat shows in the hope that they would remind the industry that he was around. He did a huge amount of work, but few people saw it, especially not in America. What had started in such glory ended in a rather muted melancholy. Why this should be has been the subject of my books.
The glory, while it lasted, was glorious indeed. Welles’s impact on the theatre of his time is impossible to exaggerate. Bliss was it to be alive at that moment in the American theatre, but to be young was very heaven. And he was the youngest of them all. Macbeth, his first professional production, at the age of 21, made him that unusual thing, a superstar director, overnight. His new best friend, John Houseman, very English, very white, 13 years older, had been appointed head of the Negro Theatre Unit, a branch of that extraordinary venture the Federal Theatre Project, itself an offshoot of Roosevelt’s great initiative to put America back to work, the Works Progress Administration. It seems almost too good to be true that theatres and performers were included in such an initiative, but they were — right across the board. And thus it was that down in Harlem a huge company of actors who had very little experience of anything and none whatever of 17th-century verse plays, as well as some very distinguished actors who had, were put under the leadership of this astonishing great hulk of a middle-class boy from the Midwest with floppy black hair, electrifying energy and the voice (even then) of God Almighty.
It worked, not perhaps in quite the way Shakespeare might have intended, but as an event it was astounding, unprecedented, a sort of barbaric cabaret, underpinned from beginning to end by the drums of Asadata Dafora. Harlem went wild for it. Houseman was so thrilled by his protégé’s work that he determined to quit the Negro Unit and set up a unit of their own within the FTP. Marlowe’s Dr Faustus was the first show, cut by, designed by, with conjuring tricks by, the human tornado Welles, who of course played the title role. It was an out-and-out triumph, followed by something much more risky, The Italian Straw Hat, a wild farce by Eugène Labiche, followed by something very politically daring, a musical written by a card-carrying communist, Marc Blitzstein, advocating root-and-branch reform of capitalism.
The FTP instructed Welles to delay the opening, but he would not hold back. When he found himself locked out of his theatre he simply found another, and he and the entire company and the entire audience marched up Broadway and did the show right there. It was the most enormous hit, and it transferred, but Houseman and Welles were finished with the FTP.
It was then that they decided to form a company of their own, and they named it the Mercury Theatre. In November 1937 they opened to mighty fanfares with a greatly trimmed-down version of Julius Caesar — even the title was trimmed to Caesar — set in a modern fascist state; they had a stupendous triumph with it, eclipsing all their previous successes. Although it was only 90 minutes long, it was huge, technically, and demanding for the actors, and Welles was unrelenting, working everyone through the night, as he lolled, bawling out his instructions, in the stalls while trays were brought in from Chasen’s at regular intervals laden with steaks and beer that Welles avidly scoffed. The first-night audience erupted, the reviews were almost universally ecstatic, and news quickly spread across the theatrical world; the British impresario C. B. Cochran invited the Mercury to come to England and do the play in the Albert Hall.
All this was wonderfully described some decades ago by the Welles scholar Richard France, whose work was the starting point for Robert Kaplow’s charming romantic fiction, Me and Orson Welles. The book has now been made into a movie, and — astounding to report — they’ve got it all right. The story itself is a fiction, a tale about a boy (a very winning and skilful Zac Efron) who joins the Mercury just before the opening of Caesar, briefly plunges into the life of the theatre, and then leaves, swatted away by Welles. They have changed a few things to accommodate that story, a few others for practical reasons, but the essential facts are there, the characters are on the whole like their originals (though they don’t often look like them), there is a credible sense of what work in the theatre is like.
Miraculously, they’ve got Welles right, slap down the middle. The English actor Christian McKay, who bears a striking facial resemblance, and reproduces Welles’s cadences with accuracy (though pardonably he lacks some of the range and richness of what was, after all, one of the greatest voices of the 20th, or probably any other, century), succeeds where none of the many actors who have attempted to play Welles have, in that he suggests the astonishing alternation of masculine and feminine on which everyone commented. Now seductive, now abrasive, now skittish and now savage, McKay sweeps all before him, not counting the cost to himself or others, which is exactly what Welles did.
I found the whole thing inexpressibly moving, because I knew so many of the people depicted in the film — not Welles, thank God — otherwise I might have fallen under his spell and lost all objectivity (though I did once listen in on a telephone conversation between him and Rupert Everett, in which Welles roared with glorious laughter from beginning to end). I didn’t meet his best friend, Joseph Cotten, who was in Caesar, too, but I did get to know the other actors who feature in the film: George Coulouris and Norman Lloyd and William Alland and Stefan Schnabel, all of whom spoke to me at length about those days; Arthur Anderson, the boy actor to whom what happens to Zac Efron in the film happened in real life. Arthur was a real 13-year-old, whereas Richard, the boy in the movie, is 17. And Arthur never left the theatre; is still in it, as far as I know. I talked to the peppery designer Sam Leve, the lighting designer Abe Feder.
Above all, I knew John Houseman, well; indeed, at his own request, he talked to me about Welles, on his deathbed. He and Welles had fallen out terribly, but he said to me: “Meeting Orson Welles was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.” For all of them, that Caesar, and the Orson Welles of those days, were what the theatre was all about, which is what I sensed all those years ago.