‘Beckett’s Olivier is a great talent, but also a monster of egotism who undermined all who came into contact with him. The tragedy of Viven Leigh, it is implied, is to be laid squarely at his door. Beckett sticks the knife in at every opportunity, but does it so elegantly that one can quite forgive him.’
Laurence Olivier (1907-80) was perhaps the last great actor in the old tradition of heroic self-indulgence. He played every part with a frank enjoyment of theatricality which made the experience even more memorable for his audience. In the 1930s he established himself as a wide-ranging Shakespearean actor – alternating Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud at the New Theatre in 1935. By the end of the decade he had also demonstrated a powerful screen personality in Wuthering Heights (1939). His second marriage in 1940 to Vivien Leigh seemed to complete the image of the romantic star.
From the mid-40s he excelled in directing himself in Shakespeare on film, such as his dramatically shot Henry V (1944), with its timely excesses of patriotism. When the new wave of British drama began in the late 1950s, Olivier was immediately part of it. As an actor of such wide range, and a successful producer and director, Olivier was a natural choice to bring to the National Theatre into existence in 1963. Together with his new wife Joan Plowright, he built up a brilliant company and repertoire at the Old Vic. Olivier became the first actor to be given a peerage.
FRANCIS BECKETT is a journalist, author and contemporary historian, writing mainly about education, politics and society for several national newspapers. Olivier will be a departure, yet someone he always wanted to write about and he feels passionate about. He is the author of Clem Attlee: Labour’s Great Reformer and Macmillan.
Find Francis on Twitter @francisbeckett