Stage Blood by Michael Blakemore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Michael Blakemore's account of his five years at the National Theatre is funny, gripping, brilliantly written, superbly structured and just possibly true. Of course, everybody's truth is different and Peter Hall gives a quite different account, but Blakemore is highly skilled in making his own version seem plausible. His account is also valuable for its insights into the skill of directing, into theatre management and the tumultuous reign of Hall's predecessor, Laurence Olivier.
For all his caprice and unpredictability, Olivier is clearly the hero, with Hall as the nemesis who squandered Olivier's heritage and turned the National into a vehicle for his own lust for power and money. Blakemore is keen to stress Hall's strengths and talents, which only helps disarm the reader and makes the barbs more biting. He attacks Hall's reputation as the 'founder' of the Royal Shakespeare Company, claiming he renamed and developed an existing institution (while giving credit to Hall for what he did) and that the achievements of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and its luminaries such as Anthony Quayle "disappeared down Hall's gullet".
Of course it should all be taken with a pinch of salt, but so much of Britain's theatrical history has been cast in the version told by Hall (Wikipedia says he founded the RSC; the RSC itself does not) that some balance doesn't go amiss, even if Blakemore is hardly more objective than Hall.
One criticism is the pictures: all the photos are from play rehearsals, which doesn't reflect the book at all. Photos of the main characters in the book would have been useful, but none of them are there except Blakemore and Olivier (in rehearsals, naturally). What about Dexter and Tynan? Surely Peter Hall was worth depicting? And even the rehearsal photos aren't varied enough. Blakemore goes into great depth describing the complicated set of The Front Page, but the photos are too close-up to give any impression of what is being described, which is hard to picture just from the description.
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