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Arguments With England

David Finkle offers a highly enthusiastic appraisal of director Michael Blakemore's new tell-all tome. logo
This side of the Atlantic, Michael Blakemore is known primarily for his long-term collaboration with Michael Frayn. Blakemore has directed nine Frayn plays, most recently Democracy and Copenhagen and less recently the dizzyingly brilliant first production of Noises Off. Tony Award mavens know that Blakemore is the only director to win the prize for both a play and a musical in the same year: Copenhagen and his superlative revival of Kiss, Me Kate in the 1999-2000 season.

For some time before the Australian-born Blakemore made his bankable director's name helming good mate Peter Nichols' autobiographical black comedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, he spent arduous years as what the British call a jobbing actor. He even wrote First Season, a novel about those busy years. In the well-received book, he fictionalized (among other things) the romantic affair that he carried on with 22-year-old Vanessa Redgrave during a Stratford thesping stint. Now, Blakemore -- who, like so many of his English colleagues, writes well enough to have made his career as an author if he'd wanted -- looks back on his life leading up to and including the Joe Egg breakout in a memoir combatively titled Arguments With England (Faber & Faber, 404 pp, £20; not currently available in the United States). In this solid tome, he offers a great deal of information on various aspects of his professional and personal life. The book is a heady literary stew of recollections, observations, insights, gossip, and gentlemanly admonitions.

Some of Blakemore's memoir is, as the title promises, argumentative. His main quarrel with England centers around Winston Churchill's attitude towards Australia during World War II, when it appeared as if the acclaimed statesman-warrior was willing to leave the Land Down Under vulnerable to the Japanese in favor of defending the sceptered isle against threatening German forces. A personal argument that Blakemore covers is with Peter Hall: The former believes the latter was a flawed steward of the National Theatre (now the Royal National Theatre) because of his class-based policies. Blakemore and Hall clashed during Hall's early years at the National. Hall offers a more detailed explanation of at least one confrontation in his published diaries; there, he brings up an accusatory paper that Blakemore handed to colleagues about Hall's transgressions. That document goes unmentioned in Blakemore's book.

A few other beefs are aired in the book, though not really enough of them to support Blakemore's title. No matter; so much else is packed into the volume that it's difficult to put down. Readers will be intrigued by Blakemore's accounts of the professional acquaintances he's made over the decades and in some very swoony places. An ambitious if somewhat naïve lad, Blakemore befriended raconteur-playwright Robert Morley during the 1949 Aussie tour of Morley's Edward, My Son and quickly became the production's novice public relations man. That brush with fame strengthened his resolve to get to England and pursue a life on the stage.

Once in London, he got himself into RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and was on his way to a steady acting career if not to fortune and fame. Before long, he was playing seasons in repertory with the likes of Charles Laughton, Peter Brook, Tyrone Guthrie, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and a lengthy index of impressive names. Of appearing with Laughton in a Stratford Midsummer Night's Dream, he writes, " was soon apparent that he had no interest in British hierarchies and divisions. Escaping them had been one of the reasons he had spent most of his professional life in the States." The observation says something pithy about Laughton but it also reveals Blakemore's thinking on what he considers detrimental English character traits and on his oft-expressed high regard for American actors.

Having worked with Olivier more than once, Blakemore gives a number of his astute pages over to the famous Olivier-Peter Brook Titus Andronicus -- the one wherein Vivien Leigh played Lavinia. "I watched Olivier constantly, while appearing not to do so," Blakemore recalls, "and one of the things I noticed was that he was always watching us." (In comments such as these, Blakemore sheds light on great actors at work and what can be learned from them.) "The street scene about a third of the way into the play," Blakemore goes on to write about Titus, "remains the most extraordinary fifteen minutes I have ever experienced in a theatre." This is mouth-watering stuff for any lover of top-flight emoting. Blakemore describes Olivier as (not surprisingly) complex but stays on the man's side. And even as he reports on Leigh's incipient madness, he expresses his fondness for her.

Michael Blakemore
(Photo © Conrad Blakemore)
In recalling his encounters with predecessors and superiors, Blakemore charts his own development. Worried that he was wooden on stage, and confirmed in this opinion by some of his mentors, he took a while to find his voice as an actor. (He began writing Next Season during slow periods but he got enough work that the novel progressed at a halting pace.) Blakemore only realized the elasticity of his talent while portraying a secondary figure in a production of Night Must Fall. In dealing with a personal setback, he instinctively knew to utilize his feelings on stage, to give in to his vulnerability. Suddenly, he was galvanizing the crowd. "I felt a rush of pleasure," he writes, "when I realized I had my small audience in thrall. Up till now, I had relied as an actor on my small store of sophistication and assurance, and had got nowhere." He subsequently began to get somewhere and recognized that he could offer his fellow actors the sort of ideas and advice that are normally a director's bailiwick.

Arguments With England isn't all show-biz bells, whistles, and codpieces; Blakemore is also quite candid about his private life. He draws portraits of his parents with painful beauty, in particular his geographically and emotionally distant father. He presents himself as a hesitant husband and father; he and wife Shirley took a long time deciding to wed and then deciding to become parents. He was uncertain that he could give up his womanizing ways -- and he didn't. He's so straightforward about his philandering that he comes across as sexually compulsive, this in spite of his conservative demeanor and also in spite of ill health.

Blakemore, whose list of awards is as long as his tall self by now, ends this volume at the point where Joe Egg puts him and Nichols on the theatrical map and causes him to acknowledge that directing is his future. The book deserves to be on any theater-lover's shelf -- why not right next to Peter Hall's Diaries?

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