Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Review: Laurence Olivier Presents - Granada - 3 DVDs


  

Outstanding acting wasted on mediocre material

This is a most curious set of productions. Since it was made for television in the mid-1970s, one should expect the visual side to be drab and the direction to be of the worst soap-opera type. Generally these are minor issues because they pale in comparison when the acting is superb. So is the case here. Larry himself stars in five of the plays (and directs the sixth) and for his fans this collection is totally indispensable. He is accompanied by a galaxy of fine actors and actresses: Frank Finlay, Alan Bates, Malcolm McDowell, Natalie Wood, Joan Plowright, Helen Mirren. The real problem here is that the six plays are extremely uneven.

There's only masterpiece among them, to begin with, and this is of course Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). This 1976 production, though much closer to the original play, clearly cannot hold a candle to Richard Brooks' 1958 adaptation with Liz Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives. That said, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner as Maggie and Brick are certainly way above the average. The chemistry between them, or the lack of such, doesn't always come off, but on the whole these are strong, effective and even on occasion perceptive performances.

Laurence Olivier as Big Daddy
Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood and Laurence Olivier
Olivier presents a Big Daddy radically different than Burl Ives' justly legendary portrayal of the "Mississippi redneck". He rather downplays the vulgar side, though he doesn't eliminate it, and he invests the character with great dignity. Some people can't accept this, but I find it refreshing and stimulating. There is more in Big Daddy than meets the eye. There is, bursting through his crude speech, candour, integrity, tolerance and affection, even mild streaks of puritanism and nobility. These are the sides that Olivier emphasizes. I think it works rather well.

The only other play that is worth to stand beside Tennessee's masterpiece is Harold Pinter's The Collection (
1962). This is a very clever drama about sexual tension between a quartet of brilliantly played characters (Olivier, McDowell, Bates, Mirren). All those Pinter-pauses, so annoying on paper, are quite breathtakingly dramatic on the screen. The ending is mysteriously open. You have to supply it yourself. It's a play that can always bear yet another re-visit for the sheer pleasure of the smart plot, the pointed dialogue, and the impeccable acting.

Laurence Olivier in The Collection
But the rest four plays range from mediocre to dismal. They hardly bear a single watching, let alone multiple ones.

Come Back, Little Sheba (
1950) was my introduction to the drama of William Inge. I hope in his other plays he improves on this cheap and full of indifferent dialogue little shocker. It is still worth seeing because Olivier (who was a last-minute substitute for Mitchum, by the way) gives a powerful and varied performance as the alcoholic Doc, crowned with impressively histrionic fit, and Joanne Woodward is perfect as his pathetic wife in constant search of her lost dog Sheba. The play does have several poignant and even heart-rending moments, but on the whole Inge's Midwestern family drama depends too much on mere shocking value. An interesting curiosity is the very young Carrie Fisher (the future Princess Leia from Star Wars) and a guy who strikingly resembles David Bowie (but is not, as it turned out) in two of the supporting roles.

Laurence Olivier as Doc in Come Back, Little Sheba
Hindle Wakes (1912) by Stanley Houghton must have been quite dated even back in 1976. Today it is unbearable. Why on earth they decided to film this play about women's emancipation more than six decades after its premiere is quite beyond me. On top of all that, the dialogue is ponderous and for the most time just plain dull. Olivier's not-exactly-negligible talents for direction are entirely wasted on this lame little comedy.

The cast of Saturday, Sunday, Monday
Saturday, Sunday, Monday (1959) by Eduardo de Filippo is a mere farce about a noisy Italian family, so noisy in fact that in some of the scenes the dialogue is incomprehensible. No big loss, no doubt. The rest is a boring story of jealousy on which the considerable comic talents of Frank Finlay and Joan Plowright are completely wasted. There are some touching moments towards the end, but on the whole it's an excruciatingly tedious affair.

Frank Finlay in Saturday, Sunday, Monday
The same is true for Daphne Laureola (1949) by James Birdie, another vastly obsolete and mind-numbingly boring play. There is more than enough ground for a fine drama – class prejudice, transitory nature of passionate love, etc. – but it has remained completely unrealized. The only things worth seeing are Joan Plowright's hilarious scene in the bar, which opens the play, and Olivier's subtle performance of her aged husband who ruthlessly manipulates the young Romeo that's fallen for his wife. This could have been a truly terrific play. But it is in fact a tedious dreck.

All in all, a perplexing set of plays, certainly worth having for all fans of TV theatre, all the more so if they are Olivier buffs. But it's a missed opportunity rather than a memorable achievement. There are so many fine plays by Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and Somerset Maugham, to give but three names, that could have been filmed instead of 4/6 here. They would have given the stellar casts far better opportunities to do something unforgettable.
What a waste of talent!

PS It should be noted that there is a similar - but not identical - box-set released in North America (Region 1 coded, that is). It looks like this:


As you may notice, five of the plays are the same, Daphne Laureola is omitted, and The Ebony Tower is given as a kind of bonus-track.

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