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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews



  Olivier, by Philip Ziegler.

Would there have been a National Theatre without Laurence Olivier, who served as the institution’s founding director? Olivier didn’t think so, though that’s not surprising given the actor-director’s egocentric and stormy personality, which is conveyed in great detail in Olivier, Philip Ziegler’s comprehensive and valuable new biography of the English stage and film legend.

Plenty of bios on Olivier already exist. Olivier even wrote an autobiography, Confessions of an Actor, though few have found it to be objective or useful. From the start, Ziegler makes a point of boasting that he had access to much previously unavailable archival material and personal interviews. Though a length of 400 pages hardly qualifies as brief, given Olivier’s long and multi-faceted career, Olivier makes for a compact and consistently lively bio.

While little space is devoted to Olivier’s familial background and early years, Ziegler emphasizes the other great English actors who Olivier acted with and competed against for fame and critical recognition, including no less than Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness.

Ziegler, who has written plenty of books on English royalty and military history, doesn’t appear to have much of a theater background. He doesn’t shed much light on Olivier’s acting abilities, besides some generic descriptions of his physicality and love for finding synthetic touches like a protruding nose. But even if there is a lack of insider knowledge, Olivier is a well-researched, straightforward read for a modern theatergoer who doesn’t know much about Olivier beyond his trilogy of Shakespeare films, Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice.

Plenty of space is devoted to Olivier’s multiple marriages (Jill Esmond, followed by Vivian Leigh, followed by Joan Plowright) and countless affairs. Ziegler summarily dismisses contemporary guesswork over whether Olivier had homosexual leanings. Less space is devoted to Olivier’s difficult final years and last films, which may be for the better.  

For the most part, Olivier is framed around the subject’s tenure at and impact on the National Theatre, which reached its half-century anniversary last year. Theater critic Kenneth Tynan, who was brought onboard by Olivier as the theater’s literary manager, emerges as an equally brilliant but self-centered personality.

One can’t help but wonder what Olivier would have thought about the modern-day National Theatre, which is now establishing an international presence thanks to the National Theatre Live screenings in movie theaters. One could argue that Olivier’s work at the National was just as significant as his work as an actor. What would the London theater be like today had there been no National Theatre? On the other hand, what might the American theater be like if it had its own National Theatre? 


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