Monday, 15 September 2014

An audience with a Dame

Joan Plowright. Dame Joan. Widow of Larry Olivier, multi-award-winning actress of stage and screen, and stalwart of the Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea. In person, on the intimate stage at the Menier Chocolate Factory? In conversation with the fruity stage director (of everything from Shaw to Sondheim) Richard Digby Day? Of course I had to get a ticket for last night's event...

Understandably quite frail (she's 84) - macular degeneration has cost her her sight, unfortunately - Dame Joan is nonetheless in full possession of her faculties. And, with a history in theatre that goes back as long as hers (her début in the West End was in 1954), it needed Mr Digby Day's confident hand to extract the best anecdotes. Coming from a tumultuous Scunthorpe family background (her journalist father and am-dram enthusiast mother had rows of the "plate-throwing" variety, then by the weekend they would have made up and gone together to buy a new set of crockery before taking the family to the theatre) it was inevitable she would end up in drama school, and she did - none other than the Old Vic Theatre School in London.

There she came under the wing of George Devine, a director in the "Angry Young Men" era of Osbourne and Pinter, who became a significant influence in her life. It was he who encouraged her to join the newly-formed English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre - from where she had her first starring part, in William Wycherley's The Country Wife. Sir Laurence Olivier was in the audience, who recalled subsequently that he "had eyes for no-one but Joan".

Prior to that first success, she was accepted by Orson Welles for a part in his production of Moby Dick:
"I had auditioned for Orson Welles once for Othello, for Bianca. He walked down the aisle and said, ‘Who are you? You’re very good, who are you?’ I wasn’t anybody of course. Anyway I didn’t get it because there was a Rank starlet who was more newsworthy than me. I didn’t get the part that time but they said, ‘Mr Welles is very impressed and he’ll remember you the next time he’s doing anything’ and he did remember me, when he was going to do this extraordinary version, his own, of Moby Dick where I played the cabin boy, Pip. It sounds extraordinary – but the conception was of a travelling theatre company rehearsing a play that’s just come in a pile of scripts, which is Moby Dick, but originally they were there to rehearse King Lear and I was playing Cordelia. So I was in a long skirt and a bustle [and then had to reappear as a boy]. When he gave out parts there was Peter Sallis, and Patrick McGoohan, and Kenneth Williams, all in this production."
When it actually hit the stage however, she recalled, the whole ambitious production went awry when the lighting engineers kept illuminating the wrong parts of the stage. It was quite a disaster, but greater things were beckoning...

How she ended up playing alongside, then later marrying, Laurence Olivier was an interesting tale. With the success of The Country Wife came an offer from the Boulting brothers not only to take the play to Broadway but also to appear in a film version. Once again, George Devine intervened. Dorothy Tutin had just dropped out of The Entertainer with Larry, and he wanted Joan to take the part of Mrs Rice. She was reluctant: "I didn’t really like Jean Rice very much", but his words swayed her. She recalled that he said:
"'Well, if you do that you will be typecast the rest of your life if you make a success in the film as the Country Wife, and you have more important things to do'. So I did the play.

"And of course the kudos of acting with Laurence Olivier – I didn’t know it was going to go any further than that then – was a huge attraction, naturally."

The rest is history, of course. While both were acting in separate plays in New York in 1961, she alongside Angela Lansbury in A Taste of Honey and he alongside Anthony Quinn in Becket - and with the full collusion of both co-stars, who sneaked them respectively from their houses to waiting cars to take them to the ceremony unseen by paparazzi - Joan and Larry married.

Already the founding director of the renowned Chichester Theatre Company, Sir Laurence was appointed director of the foundling National Theatre in 1963, and so the couple relocated once more to London. The first overseas tour the company undertook was to Cold War Moscow - and Dame Joan had some funny anecdotes about that occasion.

In the hotel where they stayed, apparently one entire floor was staffed by KGB officials. There were microphone "bugs" everywhere, and the company used these to theatrical effect - to complain about the food, in particular. Larry enjoyed (ahem!) the hospitality so much that - to the disdain of the fearsome receptionist, he fell sideways into a towel cupboard before getting to their room, and Joan had to go alone to the official reception with local talents such as Rostropovitch in attendance. The bugging culture was obviously working, as every guest she met knew that he was "unwell" before she could say anything...

"At Home With the Oliviers" was a subject only briefly touched upon. Larry once offered to look after the (early) feeding of their small children while Joan slept, as she was working and he was not. All Joan remembered was waking with a start and heading to the kitchen, to be met with utter bedlam. "Oh, thank heavens you're here!" Larry said, "I'd rather play Othello eight times a week than do this!"

As this fabulous 75-minute "audience with..." drew to a close, Mr Digby Day asked Joan for her views on acting itself, the differences between stage and screen, and what she preferred:
"’s very different, you know, in film acting from theatre, because in the theatre you have to project, so things are going to be larger than life. They have to be to reach the back of a theatre. It doesn’t mean to say they’re untrue; they are just, with the help of technique, projected. But in the cinema the camera does the projection so if you do a theatrical performance in front of a camera, it won’t work. It will be false and it’ll look over the top, because you have to exist in front of a camera because it is doing all that work for you."
And her final thoughts on the subject:
“Often we get stuck behind a façade; acting gives us the liberty to explore all aspects of the character we are assuming. We almost become that person.

"Acting is an outlet for comedy and grief, and all the characters inside you."
Here is Dame Joan in one of those classic acting roles - Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (also starring Paul McGann, Rupert Frazer, Amanda Redman and Natalie Ogle):

Read more of Dame Joan's recollections on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Theatre last year.

Dame Joan Ann Plowright, the Baroness Olivier, DBE on Wikipedia.


  1. Oh darling, what a lovely post! I love me some Joan Plowright! Loved her in Tea with Mussolini. I also get her confused alot with a actress on a BBC show Father Brown. The actress play a side kick of sorts to him. They look so similar.

    1. I am not sure Miss (Sorcha) Cusack (for it was she) would be too flattered - she is twenty years the junior of Dame Joan, after all; and the Dame and Sir Larry appeared in several National Theatre productions with her dad (Cyril). However I do see a resemblance... Jx

  2. I was most peeved to have missed it Thanks for such a fab post and vid.
    Dame Joan and Oscar at their best.


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