Stage Blood

Michael Blakemore
Faber and Faber

Stage Blood

For some reason, the cover of Stage Blood looks as if it has been designed for the latest in a murder mystery series starring a familiar detective.

On this occasion, that is certainly not the case, although Michael Blakemore has written a real page turner that shines a light on life at the National Theatre during the years in the early 1970s just before and after its move to the current location on the South Bank.

He does so from the perspective of an Associate Director, a member of the small management team running the company.

The five-year period covered manages to mix in almost equal measure the author's pride, pleasure and frustration.

Blakemore's initial appointment came under the regime of Lord Olivier, a complex and at times infuriating figure, who could also be charming and inspirational.

The author balances adoration of the great man with annoyance, although he also enjoyed the opportunity to direct an iconic actor in Long Day's Journey into Night, which began to rescue an ailing theatre's fortunes both artistically and financially.

This production is considered in remarkable detail and that section of the book should prove instructive for any aspiring actor or director.

Similarly, the coverage of The Front Page might have the same effect as it did on this reviewer, leading to the pleasure of watching the Billy Wilder movie version starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

Knowing the esteemed Sir Anthony Hopkins's reputation today, it is chilling to read about his disastrous Macbeth experience opposite Dame Diana Rigg in a production only eventually rescued when Dennis Quilley was asked to step into the role.

In addition to its fine portrait of Lord Olivier, Stage Blood also presents a fond memorial to the mercurial Ken Tynan and, in passing, his long-suffering wife Kathleen.

Even before his arrival, there must have been a suspicion that the future under the man who would eventually become Sir Peter Hall was going to be tempestuous.

It is never easy to be associated with an old regime in the period immediately after a coup and while there was a great deal of respect between the two directors, bitterness and tears was always a likely outcome once Sir Peter took over.

The book then turns positively Shakespearean as the directors wage war on each other leading to two very different versions of the truth following Blakemore's high-profile resignation.

The reportage provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the political machinations that can go on in boardrooms but also, it would seem, the genteel world of theatre.

With all of this trust more, anyone interested in Sir Peter Hall's career, that of Michael Blakemore, or theatrical history 40 years ago will undoubtedly find Stage Blood and engrossing read.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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