Friday 15 December 2017

He bluffed his way there at 16 -- and now Welles returns to the Irish stage

Bringing the past to life: Paul Nugent as Orson Welles
Bringing the past to life: Paul Nugent as Orson Welles

Colin Murphy

Orson Welles was called many things in his life, but never Irish. Yet he could claim to be Ireland's greatest ever theatrical export: at 16, he bluffed his way on to the Gate stage and served his apprenticeship there for a life of both theatre and stardom.

Now, Welles is to star again on the Irish stage. Paul Nugent has written a gentle romp about Welles's 1938 live radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol. (It's at the Powerscourt Townhouse Theatre in Dublin from Friday to Sunday, with matinees each day. See www.aboutfaceireland.com.)

Then just 23, Welles had followed his Irish apprenticeship with immediate success on Broadway and was already a huge radio star, fresh from controversial success with The War of the Worlds (which is available on YouTube).

Welles had adapted the Dickens classic to be performed live for an immense audience on the CBS network. But he was under strain, juggling live radio on competing networks with theatre rehearsals and high-powered meetings with Hollywood execs. He was so overworked, he hired an ambulance in order to speed between appointments.

At the heart of Nugent's play is a complete reenactment of his A Christmas Carol in 1930s radio style. He has bookended this with some manic Wellesian slapstick, as the actor playing Scrooge goes sick and Welles makes frantic rewrites even while preparing to take over.

Ireland had a huge impact on Welles, and features repeatedly in the recent book My Lunches with Orson, which records the big man's scabrous conversation over a series of luncheon interviews in the 1980s with the writer-director Henry Jaglom (a great stocking filler).

Welles recalls the Irish with both fondness and hostility. His biggest success, he says, was with the first play he ever did, Jew Süss, at the Gate. He retained a lifelong affection for the Gate's founders, Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, and cast Mac Liammóir as Iago in his film of Othello in 1952.

Later, a French writer, Maurice Bessy, wrote a biography of Welles and claimed he was "an impotent latent homosexual". Welles attributes this to the fact that Bessy had joined him in Paris, while he was rehearsing Othello with Mac Liammóir.

"When I am with a homosexual, I get a little homosexual," Welles explains. "Just to keep Micheál comfortable, I kind of camped a little. To bring him out. So he wouldn't feel he was with a terrible straight."

He recalls a visit to the Aran Islands when he was 17. "These great, marvellous girls in their white petticoats, they'd grab me. Off the petticoats would go. . . And all with husbands out in their skin-covered canoes. All day, while I had nothing to do.

"Then the girls would go and confess it all to the priest, who finally said to me, 'I had another confession this morning. When are you leaving?'"

The hostility comes out in scathing attacks on Irish-Americanism, such as his observation that Spencer Tracy was "one of those bitchy Irishmen". When Jaglom challenges this apparent anti-Irishness, Welles justifies it: "They hate themselves," he explains. "Seven-hundred years of bitter oppression have changed their character, given them that passive meanness and cunning." He says he once asked Mac Liammóir (an Englishman gone native) to describe the Irish in one word. "Malice," replied Mac Liammóir.

The book paints an incisive and titillating picture of Welles and Hollywood.

But the best portrait of Welles remains that of Mac Liammóir in his memoir, All For Hecuba. Welles arrived at the Gate, at 16, with a voice "already that of a preacher, a leader, a man of power," recalls Mac Liammóir. "He had some ageless and superb inner confidence that no one could blow out. It was unquenchable. That was his secret."

Welles persuaded them to give him an audition. "It was an astonishing performance, wrong from beginning to end but with all the qualities of fine acting tearing their way through a chaos of inexperience."

"Terrible, wasn't it?" Welles asked afterwards.

Hilton Edwards replied: "Yes, bloody awful. But you can play the part."

The rest is history.

COLINMURPHY@INDEPENDENT.IE

Irish Independent

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