February 2024

The Nation Reviewed

The curtain falls

By Peter Craven
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Vale Michael Blakemore, whose rivalry with the National Theatre’s Peter Hall led them both to become giants of the stage

Michael Blakemore, who died on December 10 at the age of 95, was one of the very greatest theatre directors Australia has produced, and the world at large has seen his work. He did the dazzling production of Michael Frayn’s backstage farce Noises Off and he is the only person ever to win two Tonys in the same year: one for Kiss Me, Kate and the other for Copenhagen. Blakemore did everything from Long Day’s Journey into Night with Laurence Olivier and Constance Cummings – which the great dramatist’s daughter said was the finest production of it she’d ever seen – to David Williamson’s The Club in New York.

The son of a Sydney doctor and a dropout from medicine himself, Blakemore was an impassioned surfer who kept a flat in Bondi so he could hit the waves when he was in his homeland. He also wrote two books about the theatre, one of which, Arguments with England, is one of the greatest accounts of life on the stage ever written. The other, Stage Blood, gives us more of his career, when he was made an associate director of the National Theatre by Olivier, and then his very detailed account of what he thinks went wrong with the National under its second head, Peter Hall. There’s also a novel, Next Season, which the thesps revere.

His long career seems to stretch into myth and legend. He fell for Olivier’s acting in the mid ’40s with the film of Henry V and the 1947 Richard III tour to Australia. He was mentored by that wily English actor Robert Morley, who would lecture Establishment Sydney about the merits of socialism and who sent him to RADA (where he once received a chaste kiss from Joan Collins, though she failed utterly to remember him in her Dynasty days). By 1956 he had a small role in the Peter Brook production of Titus Andronicus with Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and he always cherished Olivier’s delivery of the great speech “For now I stand as one upon a rock / Environed with a wilderness of sea”.

Blakemore was then part of the team in that most legendary of Stratford Shakespeare seasons, with Paul Robeson as Othello, Charles Laughton as Lear and as Bottom, Dame Edith Evans as the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well and Olivier as Coriolanus (in which Larry threw himself in a somersault from such a height he would have to be caught by the calves by young actors or die). He loved the danger in Olivier’s acting – the affinity it would also have with Marlon Brando – but he was a connoisseur of every level of performance. He says in Arguments with England that Laughton, who was not up to the storms and furies of Lear, was unsurpassable in his meeting with the blind Gloster. Laughton asked if the genius of that was him or Shakespeare, and the young Australian said a bit of both.

In All’s Well Blakemore was directed by the legendary Tyrone Guthrie, who could take a stage full of actors and create a dazzling effect by the collective expelling of breath. It was Guthrie who taught him that Shakespeare (pace Peter Hall) should often be delivered in a single long breath, never mind the line break.

There is a lot of pace Peter Hall in the impassioned recollections of Blakemore. At one stage he is conducting a long passionate affair with the 22-year-old Vanessa Redgrave, at first seeing each other all the time, then only by careful arrangement. Eventually, he becomes aware of the fact that the other man is the sportscar-driving partner of the French star Leslie Caron – Peter Hall. Hall is about to form the Royal Shakespeare Company and he makes it clear to Blakemore that he has no job for him but that they’ll work together down the track.

When they do it’s in the Indian summer of Olivier’s reign. Larry tended to see the director as a kind of butler for the actor, and Shirley MacLaine says in Blakemore’s presence that she is amazed to see him billed as “the producer” of Long Day’s Journey. Blakemore has a portrait of himself and Hall, black-tied and affable, taking a piss together, and there’s a moment when the incoming overlord of the National says to Blakemore that he may be more than a very good director; he may be a great one.

Blakemore thought both Ken Tynan and Jonathan Miller were sacrificed to Hall’s soaring and self-serving ambition. He saw Hall as a money-hungry megalomaniac, forever adding to his role running a theatre company with things such as running the Glyndebourne opera house or compering an arts TV show. In his eyes, that meant Hall lacked the fundamental quality of self-sacrifice that characterised people who cared about quality theatre. He writes that Hall prided himself on never having sacked anyone, but emphasises how much he ruined careers. His account of all this in Stage Blood is colossally detailed.

He in fact wrote a report for his fellow associates – who included Harold Pinter and the film director John Schlesinger – which he was at elaborate pains to read at their meeting and not to distribute to the press. He takes the dimmest possible view of Hall’s motives even though he is also scrupulous in indicating how apparently reasonable Hall was. At a given point, Hall’s assistant stopped the payment of Blakemore’s normal salary and offered a lump sum. Olivier described this as a “shitty” thing to do.

Olivier had apparently contemplated Blakemore as his successor to run the National, but the somewhat besotted intensity of the Australian’s horror at everything Hall stood for suggests he was not worldly enough. Tynan said he and Blakemore were cavaliers, where Hall was a puritan.

Yet people who worked with Blakemore in Australia were staggered by the magic of what he could do with voices, what he could do with light. He loved the Sydney Opera House as a secular cathedral that only his homeland would be mad enough to have persisted with. He came to see the Australia from which he fled as a freer society than Britain.

It’s a pity he didn’t direct the Albert Finney uncut Hamlet – an idea Hall lifted from him – but it hardly matters. Peter Hall could have run a theatre company on the moon. Michael Blakemore was a great man of the theatre with an imaginative brilliance that matched his talent.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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