Me and Orson Welles

A schoolboy stumbles upon a major role in Welles's production of Julius Caesar in this sublime adaptation of Robert Kaplow's book

It is difficult to recapture the excitement Orson Welles generated 50 years ago among cinephiles and serious theatregoers. When George Coulouris joined the Bristol Old Vic Company in 1950 after a lengthy sojourn in the States my fellow sixth-formers and I were thrilled beyond measure to have in our city an actor who'd played Mark Antony opposite Welles in the Mercury company's fabled 1937 modern dress production of Julius Caesar and had a leading role in Citizen Kane. Yet none of us had seen Citizen Kane which had been out of distribution since shortly after its opening in 1941. We only knew of him through a few film appearances, most notably The Third Man, and his reputation for brilliance, wit and innovation, and what a few years later we'd learn to call charisma. Satyajit Ray said that one of the great regrets of his life was being out of Calcutta when Kane had its brief three-day screening there; one of mine is queuing at a London theatre in 1951 to see Welles in Othello and failing to get in.

This exhilaration came back to me this week while seeing Richard Linklater's engrossing film version of Robert Kaplow's charming novel about a fictitious 18-year-old schoolboy briefly becoming a member of Welles's Mercury Theatre in 1937. In a very personal way, the experience was enhanced by the curious fact that much of the film was shot in a theatre in Douglas, Isle of Man, where I spent several summers in the earlier 1940s, though I can't remember anything I saw on stage there.

The film is presented through the eyes of Richard Samuels, a bright high school senior from New Jersey, in love with theatre, cinema, literature, radio and popular culture, attractively played by Zac Efron, star of the High School Musical series. One day he crosses the Hudson to look around Manhattan. First he meets in a music store Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), a deeply serious girl his own age with literary ambitions. Then he strikes up a conversation with actors outside the Mercury Theatre on 41st Street, which has just been taken over by Welles's company after their departure from the government-sponsored Federal Theatre. Suddenly Welles himself arrives, immaculately turned out in a homburg and three-piece suit, and he engages in badinage with his actors and the naive, fearless Richard. The upshot is that after cross-questioning the teenager, the mercurial and capricious head of the Mercury hires Richard to play Brutus's young servant Lucius in the play that is scheduled to open in a week's time.

Welles hands him over to his attractive young assistant, Sonya (Claire Danes), to be inducted into the ways of the company. She's a sophisticated, highly ambitious young woman, determined to use anyone to get ahead in showbusiness, her immediate aim being to get a job with David O Selznick, Hollywood's hottest producer. She stands in contrast to Gretta, the idealistic writer, and together they represent key facets of the 1930s. Meanwhile, Welles in his role of teacher takes Richard under his wing, demanding he accompany him on his money-making trips to radio stations, using an ambulance to make his way through the traffic. There's a marvellous scene of Welles arriving just in time for a broadcast, largely unacquainted with the script and taking off into an eloquent improvisation that baffles, infuriates and then impresses his fellow actors.

Linklater's film is about the education of a suburban boy in the ways of the world, and the dramatic core is a realistic and persuasive account of the making of the Mercury's Julius Caesar and of the outrageous Welles at work. The modern dress production, with its dark green uniforms and Sam Browne belts, raised-arm salutes and a Caesar with a strong resemblance to Mussolini, is designed to make audiences think of Italy and fascist dictators. But Welles himself, playing Brutus, the intelligent, conscience-stricken liberal, is something of a dictator in the way he savagely cuts Shakespeare's text (re-arranged and pared down to 90 minutes), orders everyone around, and takes credit for his collaborators' work.

Never before have I seen a theatrical production so brilliantly re-created, and for this major credit must go to the British cinematographer Dick Pope, who makes us feel we're there on the historic night. But at the end the show belongs to Christian McKay, the fourth and best actor to play Welles on screen. When we first see him the resemblance is merely passing, but after five minutes we think we're in the presence of the arrogant, irresistible young Orson himself, such is the accuracy of the body language, the facial expressions and above all that resonant voice, purring and booming. When after the first night curtain he asks, "How the hell do I top this?", the complexity of his future life flashes before us. Most of the other performances are convincing – Ben Chaplin as the perennially pessimistic Coulouris, Leo Bill as the puckish Norman Lloyd, and James Tupper as the suave lady's man Joseph Cotten, who figures in a lovely joke when in an ironic re-enactment of the most famous image from The Third Man he emerges as eavesdropper from a pitch-black doorway. The one real failure is a miscast Eddie Marsan, a specialist in sad losers, as Welles's closest associate and equal, the haughty, confident John Houseman, one of the great figures of the 20th-century arts.


Philip French Critic of the year

The GuardianTramp

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