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Is This A Dagger . . ?
on 27 December 2013
It is rare that I read a book from cover to cover at virtually one sitting. `Stage Blood' is an exception. Splendidly and concisely written, it tells mostly of Blakemore's experiences at the new National Theatre, the behind-the-scenes dramas that unfolded as the dramas on stage were being created.
He tellingly reveals the fragility of a life in the theatre where a period of success is all but certain to be followed by failure, as was to happen to him after his own string of successes including "Long Day's Journey into Night". Equally revealing are his insights into the entire production process - from the decision to select a particular play through the appointment of actors and designers, the amount of detail a director prepares in advance vis-a-vis the give and take with the actors in the rehearsal studio, the often nerve-wracking crises that arise - as with Tom Stoppard's "Jumpers" and Ken Tynan's part in re-shaping a good deal of the work between first preview and opening night, thereby turning a near-disaster into a triumph.
The book has an honesty which makes it an utterly believable account. In its pages, the author fleshes out characters we have all heard about - the young, near-alcoholic Antony Hopkins, Diana Rigg, the wonderful Denis Quilley, Kenneth Tynan, Harold Pinter and many more. Laurence Olivier comes in for unstinting praise as the finest actor of his generation and the only one who could have pulled together the National Theatre project. Yet his insecurities, unpredictability and manipulating side are fully illustrated, as is the dignity which he exhibited in the face of the shameful manner of his replacement by Peter Hall.
Whilst the title of the book can refer to many of the smaller skirmishes outlined within its pages, the reader is left in no doubt that its thrust is primarily aimed at Blakemore's extended battle with Peter Hall. This occupies much of the last 100 pages. Blakemore reveals how Hall continuously stripped away the foundations of Olivier's achievements and turned the focus more to star power and away from the importance of the ensemble.
I still recall my own shock when reading Peter Hall's `Diaries' in the early 1980s at his rapier-pike focus on making more and more "real" money. As Blakemore points out, whilst continuing to be paid an NT salary vastly higher than Olivier's, his extra-curricular fee-generating activities included not only extended absences as Director of Productions at Glyndebourne Opera and mounting the ill-fated centenary Ring cycle at Bayreuth, he had persuaded his Board to change previous policy so that producers of NT plays transferring for commercial runs in the West End and/or Broadway were paid huge royalties even though none were paid to the NT itself where the productions originated. At present-day prices the transfer of Hall's own admittedly masterful production of "Amadeus" to Broadway alone is estimated to have brought him an additional £5.5 million or so. Hall, suggests Blakemore, was running two separate businesses: one on behalf of the National, the other for himself.
How the NT Board could have been so neglectful in its duties is the one question left largely unanswered. It is one that should form the basis of another account as revealing and honest as `Stage Blood'.