The play’s the thing…………and how!
I was enthralled by the 2013 Stage Blood, Blakemore’s account of the early days of the National Theatre in its new South Bank home, and the last days of the company at the Old Vic, under, first of all, Sir Laurence Olivier as the Artistic Director, and then, Peter Hall’s first few years of tenure. Blakemore had been invited to join as an Associate director by Olivier, whom he much admired, and had interesting things to say about Hall. As in, ‘may you live in interesting (conflicting/disputatious) times’ He had some prior history with Hall, and resigned (as did some others) not liking the direction Hall was taking.
This book, published some 9 years earlier (2004) is amongst other things, a far more obviously autobiographical book than Stage Blood, though of course Blakemore’s experience of those 5 years at the National, is nonetheless an individual’s account, it is still focused on the history of an organisation in which the author was deeply involved
Arguments with England is Michael Blakemore’s sense of himself, and his personal history which has been lived as an Australian who came to this country to follow a path in theatre, drawn here by the experience of seeing that tradition of classical theatre in Australia, as exemplified by tours from ‘the mother country’ with some towering figures at their helm. Of which one was Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, on tour with the Old Vic Theatre Company.
Blakemore, arriving in the UK in 1950, though always desirous of directing, started as an actor, auditioning and being accepted at RADA and then following the life of a jobbing, but steadily more successful middle range actor. This book charts that life, and his long start and stop writing of his novel, Next Season. I was fascinated (despite his later disclaimer that he had amalgamated characters and incidents and no specific individual was portrayed) to so clearly be able to identify characters from that novel, in this autobiographical account
There is quite a lot of information about various affairs Blakemore had, plus personal stuff which really belongs to others. I always feel a little uneasy with these revelations – only because I wonder how those various partners might feel about their histories being revealed. I can only hope permission was given. Reading this book, I found myself full of – I’m not sure if I want to write admiration or compassion for his wife, who seems to be a woman of extraordinary – tolerance, or long-standing broadmindedness. Or, perhaps laid unfairly low by her loving heart. The marriage was/is an ‘open’ one, but as often, it seems this means males wanting freedom to roam, and women being dangled. Blakemore expressed, often in this book that he had had no intention of leaving his marriage, and I also felt compassion for the woman with whom he had a long standing affair.
Be that as it is, I hurry along to praise the fascinating writing about the process of acting itself, the details of performances Blakemore saw, with actors he admired hugely, accounts of his own discoveries, anguishes and successes with rehearsals and performance and also the wonderful view of England and English society and culture which is revealed by an outsider’s eye. It always fascinates me, how someone from another culture views ours (and how we view theirs)
If the industrial wasteland I was passing through on my way to Huddersfield spoke of the selective blindness of those fortunate enough to live elsewhere, it also said something about the perverse social obedience of the thousands dumped in the middle of it. Similarly the fondness for secrecy among those who governed….could only be indulged by a constituency happy not to know. I could see that the class system, the acceptance of which was so incomprehensible to an outsider, was shored up most crucially by its victims, a population obsessed with deference…..By the mid-sixties England would be a country in which I felt lucky to have found refuge. By the mid-eighties, as the old heartlessness found new ways to assert itself, I would be less sure
Blakemore had (and has) absolute passion and intelligence for theatre, and whether he is writing about the experience of the audience, exploring acting itself, or directing, or writing for theatre, and the collaborations between director, writer, actors, designers and the technical side of bringing vision to reality, this is an utterly fascinating account.
Up till now I had relied as an actor on my small store of sophistication and assurance, and had got nowhere. Only now, when I was making use of the most vulnerable and naked aspects of myself had I come up with something of real interest….I began to see that notwithstanding its occasional triumphs, its conspicuously public success, there was at the heart of an actor’s life an aspect of public confession, something perplexed and even grieving