Monday 26 August 2019

Genius in the making: Orson Welles in Ireland

Chancer: Orson Welles made his acting debut on stage at The Gate Theatre in Dublin.
Chancer: Orson Welles made his acting debut on stage at The Gate Theatre in Dublin.
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

This has been the centenary year of Orson Welles' birth, and during 2015 there've been retrospectives, re-releases of his most celebrated films, documentaries, new biographies and endless reassessments of his life and work. But before the year ends I thought it would be nice to explore the great man's relationship with Ireland.

Because although Welles made his name in New York and Hollywood, and later plied his trade around the great cities of Europe, he made his professional acting debut in Dublin, and throughout his life retained a strong connection to this island. He even made a short film here, and one of his Irish theatrical friends popped up in several of his later movies.

It's often been noted that the lonely childhood of Charles Foster Kane echoes that of his creator. Born in Wisconsin in 1915, Orson Welles had lost his doting mother by the age of nine, and his father was dead by the time he was 15. Thereafter he fell under the guardianship of Maurice Bernstein, a Jewish doctor from Chicago who was given the onerous task of trying to control the teenage Orson's conduct and spending.

When Orson left high school at 16 in the summer of 1931, his guardian faced a dilemma. Bernstein wanted to send him to Harvard or some other Ivy League institution that might knock the edges off him and turn him into a substantial citizen, but the wildly precocious Welles had other plans, and was anxious to launch his career as an actor.

An uneasy compromise was reached, and the 16-year-old was sent off to Europe for the summer to complete his cultural education. He left New York aboard the SS Baltic in August of 1931, bound or so he thought on a grand tour of old Europe - but in fact he would spend almost all his time in Ireland.

He disembarked in Galway after four days at sea, and set off on a "painting tour" of the west coast. He hired a cart and a donkey named Sheeog and proceeded in stately fashion through the wilds of Connemara, painting landscapes by day that he described as "hideous abortions" in letters to home, and sleeping out under the stars by a turf fire at night.

He was hugely impressed by our western landscape, and even found time to visit the Aran Islands. Young Orson spent some time on Inisheer, where he was fondly remembered for his enthusiastic dancing, but an account he gave late in his life appears to contradict the popular view of chaste, Catholic, early 20th-century Ireland.

During a series of taped interviews with his friend Henry Jaglom, which were published in book form a couple of years back, Welles claimed that rural Ireland at that time was teeming with "poor virgin ladies waiting to get married" and that when he went to the Aran Islands he was pursued by them so vigorously that he "could hardly draw a breath".

"Those great marvellous girls in their white petticoats, they'd grab me - off the petticoats would go. And with all the husbands out in their skin-covered canoes." One should note at this point that Orson Welles, a peerless after-dinner speaker and storyteller, was prone to embellishments and wild exaggerations in the service of his yarns. And if his account of life on Inisheer sounds suspiciously like refried John Millington Synge, that may not be a coincidence.

Whatever about all that, by the start of October he abandoned his western travels and headed east for Dublin City. On his second night in the capital he attended a performance of the Earl of Longford's play The Melians at the Gate Theatre. Among the cast he spotted a young actor he'd met in the west, and this was pretext enough for Welles to present himself backstage after the performance.

The tall, broad, plumply handsome Orson caught the eye of Hilton Edwards, the Gate's legendary co-founder. Edwards had been looking for an actor charismatic enough to play the key role of Duke Karl Alexander in a forthcoming production of a play called Jew Suss, and now he thought he'd found him.

Welles, who always looked and sounded much older than his years, claimed he was 18 and already an established player in New York. Edwards would later say he didn't believe a word, but nevertheless he hired him on the spot, and young Orson began his first professional rehearsal.

Not everyone at the Gate Theatre was over the moon about Orson's arrival on the scene, most particularly Hilton Edwards' professional and romantic partner, Micheal MacLiammoir. A very interesting character in his own right, MacLiammoir had been born Alfred Willmore in Kensal Green, London, and fell in love with Irish culture when he visited the country in the 1920s.

Though having no connection with Ireland whatsoever, he studied the Irish language until he could write and speak it fluently, changed his name to MacLiammoir and began claiming Cork heritage. A rich southern lift invaded his plummy accent, and his apparent Irish credentials were a great help when he and the very English Hilton Edwards set up the Gate Theatre in 1928. He and Edwards became perhaps Dublin's first openly gay couple, their sexuality quietly acknowledged by the city's residents, who referred to them, affectionately for the most part, as 'the boys'.

Fiercely jealous both of Hilton's attention and of actors who might upstage him, McLiammoir saw the young and dashing Orson as a rival on several fronts. About his lover he need not have worried - Welles was and would always remain enthusiastically heterosexual. But MacLiammoir's other worst fear was confirmed when Welles received a thunderous standing ovation for his performance in Jew Suss on the play's opening night - October 13, 1931.

Welles himself was probably the only one in the house who knew this was his professional début, and the response of the Dublin crowd would stay with him for the rest of his life. "It was thunderous and totally unexpected," he told his biographer Barbara Leaming many years later. "I got more acclaim for that than for anything I've done since!"

In the wings, MacLiammoir fumed, and thereafter, as Welles himself put it, "whenever I was anywhere near the Gate it was one long plot to cut me down".

He appeared in a number of other Gate productions over the next few months, including Hamlet, but his roles from then on were relatively minor, and he would often find bits of scenery mysteriously interposing themselves between him and the audience. He left Ireland again for New York in 1932, but he held fond memories of the Gate in his heart and, remarkably, no ill feeling towards MacLiammoir.

More than anyone he understood the raging insecurities of the performing artist, and when he made a movie version of Othello in the early 1950s it was Micheal MacLiammoir whom he asked to be his Iago. And around that time he returned to Ireland and made a short film with Edwards and MacLiammoir called Return to Glennascaul (1951).

It was filmed in the Phoenix Park and narrated by Welles, who played an American who's driving through the Irish countryside when he picks up a hitch-hiker who tells him a disturbing ghost story. This atmospheric little film was shown for many years in Dublin cinemas before the main feature, and can be found on a DVD release of Welles' Othello.

MacLiammoir also starred in a 1954 TV production Welles did of King Lear, and Orson always credited Hilton Edwards for inspiring him towards the kind of bold and overtly theatrical productions of Shakespeare's plays that would ultimately get him noticed. He owed the Gate - and Ireland - a great deal, and never forgot it.

He returned numerous times, and in 1960 brought his Shakespeare mash-up stage production Chimes at Midnight to The Gaiety Theatre. That show would eventually become Welles' last great film. In later life he would often speak fondly of Ireland, but was less keen on Irish-Americans, whom he referred to as "a new and terrible race".

"Look, I love Ireland," he told Henry Jaglom just a year before his death, "I love Irish literature, I love everything they do, you know. But the Irish-Americans have invented an imitation Ireland which is unspeakable. The wearin' o' the green. Oh my God! To vomit!" Harsh words, but one gets the point.

Hoffman's last role

The final instalment of the Hunger Games franchise was released last week, and contains the last screen performance we'll ever see from Philip Seymour Hoffman. The actor died over a year-and-a-half ago, but had already filmed most of his scenes for Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, apart from a crucial one late on, in which his character, the rebellion's puppet-master Plutarch Heavensbee, reconnects with his protégée Katniss Everdene at a critical moment in the drama.

In other films where actors have died suddenly, the producers have resorted to digital trickery to cover up the hole: for instance the makers of Fast and Furious 7 compensated for the late Paul Walker's absence using CGI and the actor's younger brothers, who worked as stand-ins. But Mockingjay - Part 2 has opted for a more minimal approach.

Hoffman's character disappears quietly a third of the way through, and at the climax is briefly seen smiling at Katniss's coming-of-age - the clip looks like a snatched out-take. A touching speech by Plutarch is turned into a letter to Katniss, which is read to her by Woody Harrelson's character, Haymitch. It's a dignified approach, which quietly acknowledges the actor's passing rather than ignoring it.

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