Rosebud

Mark Jenkins
King's Head
(2006)

Publicity photo

Christian McKay's uncanny resemblance to Orson Welles is the reason Mark Jenkins' Rosebud ever came into being. McKay's likeness to Welles is indeed remarkable and his solo performance at the King's Theatre in Rosebud is worthy of the great Welles himself.

McKay's performance, coupled with Jenkins' script, renders Welles equally accessible and interesting to those familiar and unfamiliar with that Mongol-eyed wunderkind. The life of the legendary American actor and director (producer, writer, editor and all-round gifted God, if you take his own word for it) is here brought to life with affection and analysis which is compelling as well as informative.

A dramatic opening confronts the audience with a momentary blackout. The zither tune of 'The Harry Lime' theme from The Third Man is plucked at full volume. Then, suddenly, a beam of light illuminates a Wellesian McKay dressed in Harry Lime's dark outfit from that unforgettable doorway scene in Reed's masterpiece. Hitchcock would have said that the doors of the unconscious were about to be opened. As indeed they are.

The prologue unravels the childhood of a promising genius. The narrator/ Welles/ McKay recounts with a mix of boastful self-mockery (so characteristic of Welles in his prime): "Fresh out of diapers and I'm scraping tunes on the violin. I am told - 'Even Mozart couldn't play that well, this age!' and 'Have you any idea what all this adulation does to an impressionable child? He begins to believe it, that's what!' Those who know and cherish Citizen Kane immediately remember Welles/Kane's words to Mr Bernstein: "If I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man."

Rosebud is a journey through Welles' world. En route the audience is privy to Wellesian thoughts replete with embellished reflections that spanned the unparalleled career of that "small town boy". By the age of sixteen Welles was a self-proclaimed actor, writer, recitor of Shakespeare, director, bully, victim, showman, magician, producer, sword-swallower, painter (briefly in Ireland), puppeteer and general man-of-the-world.

Welles' relationship with his father is movingly delivered by McKay: 'I only get to appreciate Dad's gift to me much later, when it is too late for me to make amends.' His brother Richard is 'cast aside to languish in a mental institution all his life. He's the unseen victim in all this '

At 19, Welles, now in his first marriage and on the threshold of fatherhood to a little girl he inexplicitly elects to call Christopher, directs an unprecedented version of Macbeth in Harlem with an all-black cast. The three traditional witches-crones are replaced by voodoo doctors who beat on Haitian drums. Banquo's killers meanwhile execute their bloody deed with guns - a familiar detail in the Harlem landscape.

Memoirs, anecdotes, film references, poetry and screen monologues are all seamlessly stitched together in this script. Welles/McKay (at this point we are well and truly convinced it is Welles) bemoans the pitfalls of Hollywood. Never upset the rich, he sagely tells us: (strike one with Citizen Kane - Randolf Hearst threatened to sue RKO and Louis B Meyer offered to buy the film reels of Kane so that he could burn them). Always produce a popular film that will please the great American audience (strike two with The Magnificent Ambersons which was plangent cinematic poetry, unrelenting in its melancholy, loss and despair: note - the false rosy ending was added by the studio in a desperate attempt to redeem it from its eternal pathos).

The transition and transformation of Welles from an energetic and confident youth to an aging 'a raggle-taggle gypsy, oh' is masterfully conveyed by McKay who laconically dresses for the part of Falstaff. Here the many facets of Orson - the individual, actor and everything else he believed himself to be - merge into one fat blob who swims "a channel of the finest clarets, sherries, chardonnays" and who, when in Vienna, "was glued to cake-shop windows, like a little boy in an Aladdin's cave of calories".

Welles' anger, frustration and general chagrin that he was and remains indivisible from Charles Foster Kane is explored and explained by Jenkins' penetrating play. Welles becomes bigger - not merely physically through a famous excess of sumptuous ingestion but enlarged in personality and character by a script and performance of matching excellence. Only one question remains. Why Rosebud? Thompson famously investigates a word that no-one in Kane witnesses bar the audience. Among trite circles of thought 'Rosebud' was meant to represent a lost childhood and is thus resonant with schmaltzy symbolism. Mankiewicz (the Mank to his friends) inserted what Welles regarded as a 'hokey device' knew of course that 'Rosebud' was Hearst's pet name for Marion Davies' clitoris. Yet if Jenkins - knowing all this and more - wanted to take his hero beyond the boundaries of Kane why did he choose to ground him in a play which reinforces the shackles to Welles' masterpiece?

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson