On 10 April 1957 Laurence Olivier, king of the classical stage, Hollywood leading man and husband of film star Vivien Leigh, appeared in a role that would change the direction of his career and be forever associated with him: that of faded music hall comedian Archie Rice in John Osbourne’s The Entertainer.
In Archie Rice, Osbourne, whose previous play was the equally iconic Look Back In Anger (1956), had created a down-trodden, formerly successful but now jaded music hall entertainer who has been reduced to appearing in a nude show – a metaphor for the declining British Empire, wallowing in the mire of the recent Suez Crisis. While Rice struggles with his sense of failure, at home his long-suffering wife takes to the gin, his son dies fighting in Suez and his opinionated father laments the passing of a once great England.
As such, this role was a major departure for Olivier and something of a risk. Audiences were used to him portraying Shakespeare’s epic and glamorous roles on big stages in the West End, not playing a dilapidated failure at new writing theatre the Royal Court, where Tony Richardson’s production was staged. The political and anti-establishment nature of Osbourne’s play could also have had repercussions on Olivier’s reputation.
And yet, it seems Archie was the part Olivier was looking for. In his biography of Osbourne, author John Heilpern says the great actor saw Archie as the narrowly escaped vision of what he could have been: “It was as if his very name had been a close call between giving birth to a great actor (Sir Laurence Olivier) or a cut-price vaudevillian (Larry Oliver). England's leading classical actor of the 20th century saw the smirking, mincing Archie Rice with his dead eyes and defiant patter as a reflection of his own self-hatred. ‘It's me, isn't it?’ he said one day during rehearsal.”
As it turned out, Olivier was a huge success in the role, with Sunday Times theatre critic Harold Hobson saying: “You will not see more magnificent acting than this anywhere in the world.”
The play shaped both his career and his personal life. When The Entertainer transferred from the Royal Court to the West End’s Palace theatre the role of Archie’s daughter Jean – played at the Royal Court by Olivier’s former lover Dorothy Tutin – was taken by Joan Plowright, an actress 22 years his junior. The two began an affair and, after Olivier divorced the unstable Leigh, they married in 1961.
Professionally, Olivier’s position in Theatreland was never stronger. Now in his 50s, he went on to become director of the first National Theatre Company at the Old Vic in 1963, both directing and starring in many productions, despite suffering from increasing ill health.
In 1960 Olivier and Plowright reprised their roles for a film of The Entertainer, directed again by Richardson.
On stage, The Entertainer was revived at the Old Vic last year, 50 years after the original. The role of Archie Rice was taken by Robert Lindsay, an actor whom Olivier once recommended for the part. Olivier’s widow, Plowright, was in the first night audience.