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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'.
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on 10 October 2013
'Stage Blood' is a page-turner. But I think Michael Blakemore should come out and say what he REALLY thinks about Peter Hall.
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Oddly for something so constricted in time and space, this lacks the intensity of Arguments, Blakemore's winning, artfully constructed account of life up to this point. Perhaps, because they are different, whichever one you read first the other will pale by comparison. Time-pressed thesps will no doubt stick with this Greek tragedy of a denouement, but we all know broadly how it's going to turn out, and for me the other had greater resonance
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on 13 October 2013
This is a bitingly honest account of some of the great productions in the early days of the National Theatre, at times you are almost back in the rehearsal room of fifty years ago. The giants - Olivier, Tynan, Dexter are vividly brought to life - together with the back stabbing and betrayal of lesser men.
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on 3 December 2013
A marvellously theatrical picture of life in the early days of the National, with Peter Hall as the smiling villain, Laurence Olivier as the adorable but devious hero, and Michael Blakemore as the constant observer. Beautifully written, constantly illuminating, it is at once one of the great books about the stage, often very funny, with the birth of the National's Long Day's Journey into Night as its superbly sustained centrepiece. Olivier is vividly, and very movingly, depicted. So too - though I cannot say movingly - is the rascal of the story, John Dexter, who had the habit, expertly conveyed, of speaking of himself in the third person. I thought he was a terrible opera director (not a subject Blakemore touches on) but clearly in his element in spoken drama. A book that revives the long defunct Kenneth Tynan tradition, this is a page-turner of the choicest sort - and Tynan himself, I am happy to say, comes out of it well. Conrad Wilson
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on 19 December 2013
I found this book almost impossible to put down. Anyone as involved in theatregoing as I was back in the 60/70s will feel the same.
It's the story of the creation of the National Theatre. Laurence Olivier set the whole theatre enterprise in motion when he was the director in its first home at the Old Vic. It is about several highly talented men, Olivier himself, hugely talented, leading an ensemble of great players. He is followed by one of the most extraordinary men of the 20th century, Peter Hall. A man prodigiously talented with a huge appetite for food and the opposite sex. Could anyone else have got this off the ground but these two remarkable men
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VINE VOICEon 20 August 2016
Michael Blakemore's account of his five years at the National Theatre is funny, gripping, brilliantly written, superbly structured and just possibly true. Of course, everybody's truth is different and Peter Hall gives a quite different account, but Blakemore is highly skilled in making his own version seem plausible. His account is also valuable for its insights into the skill of directing, into theatre management and the tumultuous reign of Hall's predecessor, Laurence Olivier.

For all his caprice and unpredictability, Olivier is clearly the hero, with Hall as the nemesis who squandered Olivier's heritage and turned the National into a vehicle for his own lust for power and money. Blakemore is keen to stress Hall's strengths and talents, which only helps disarm the reader and makes the barbs more biting. He attacks Hall's reputation as the 'founder' of the Royal Shakespeare Company, claiming he renamed and developed an existing institution (while giving credit to Hall for what he did) and that the achievements of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and its luminaries such as Anthony Quayle "disappeared down Hall's gullet".

Of course it should all be taken with a pinch of salt, but so much of Britain's theatrical history has been cast in the version told by Hall (Wikipedia says he founded the RSC; the RSC itself does not) that some balance doesn't go amiss, even if Blakemore is hardly more objective than Hall.

One criticism is the pictures: all the photos are from play rehearsals, which doesn't reflect the book at all. Photos of the main characters in the book would have been useful, but none of them are there except Blakemore and Olivier (in rehearsals, naturally). What about Dexter and Tynan? Surely Peter Hall was worth depicting? And even the rehearsal photos aren't varied enough. Blakemore goes into great depth describing the complicated set of The Front Page, but the photos are too close-up to give any impression of what is being described, which is hard to picture just from the description.
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on 4 February 2014
Ideal for those, like me, who practise theatre and enjoy appreciating how it is constructed from a bare platform and pieces of film flam. Blakemore has enough perspective not to seem arch and cynical - he clearly loves the National Theatre and (most of) the people who have trailed along the concrete walkways. Some happy memories of particular productions revived.
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on 28 April 2014
As other reviewers have said, this book is unputdownable. I read the last third in one sitting because I just had to know how the story ends. The account of the last days of the Olivier regime and the changes wrought by Peter Hall is all the more powerful for being written with the calmness that comes from forty years of thinking about them. Blakemore is a big name himself in theatre, and he is writing about some of the biggest of them all - from Olivier downwards. Given the importance of these formative years at the NT, which to a large extent set a pattern for subsidised companies ever since, this is a major work of theatre history. The fact that it is beautifully written is a huge added bonus.
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on 14 July 2014
I read this after the hugely enjoyable National Theatre Story (Daniel Rosenthal). It was nice to focus on on those early years. Michael Blakemore writes superbly. I get the feeling he was been waiting a long time to get this off his chest but I admire his bravery in standing up for what be believed was best for the NT and I think he was right. The Peter Hall years were the NT's low point when you compare him to any of his successors. It is the most honest account of the NT I have come across, and Blakemore is generous in praising the productions and relationships that were worthy. A must read if you are even only an occasional visitor to the NT.
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