By: Eric Johns
Published in Theatre World (UK), August 1961
Vivien Leigh as Marguerite Gautier and John Merivale as Armand Duval in The Lady Of The Camellias, one of the plays in the present Old Vic Company’s Australian tour.
We are not likely to see Vivien Leigh on the West End stage for at least a year. In Melbourne, she has only recently opened an eight-month tour of Australia and New Zealand and her stay abroad will be extended to cover visits to Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Manila, Bangkok and Bombay.
This tour materialised as if to provide a solution to Miss Leigh’s intimate personal problems. The shattering disillusionment following the break-up of her marriage gave her a tremendous urge to tour – not the provinces, but the world. She wanted to lead a company in her own right, rather than as the glittering consort of a player-king. She happened to confide this desire to Michael Benthall, Director of the Old Vic, just when the most famous of all Australian managements, J. C. Williamson Theatres, had invited him to send an Old Vic company to Antipodes. Thus Miss Leigh, in turn, provided a solution to his problems.
It was too good to be true, it seemed, yet there it was – all in black and white. Miss Leigh was given carte blanche in the choice of three plays. Her first was Twelfth Night, because Viola has always been one of her favourite parts and it is an excellent team-play for the company. To this she added the Christopher Fry adaptation of Duel Of Angels by Giraudoux, a powerful play of conflict in which she made such a tremendous impact on Shaftesbury Avenue and on Broadway.
Finally, she decided to fulfill a life-long ambition by playing Marguerite Gautier in The Lady Of The Camellias for the first time in her career. When she considered this famous role on previous occasions, she could never find a suitable translation of the old Dumas tear-jerker. Now she has acquired one by the Canadian dramatist, Andrew Allan. He has told the familiar story in easy-flowing dialogue, having used both the Dumas novel and play for his source.
Robert Helpmann, who directed all three plays for this overseas tour, is most gratified to see Miss Leigh playing Marguerite Gautier. “It has come just at the right moment in her career”, he remarked. “Edwige Feuillere and other French actresses are apt to overstress the grande dame aspect of the character and forget she was a great courtesan. Miss Leigh blends the two aspects to perfection and has never looked lovelier than in the costumes Carl Thoms has designed for her”.
“She is a far greater actress than many people are ready to admit”, added Mr. Helpmann. “Once she has made The Lady Of The Camellias her own on this long tour, I want to see her play it in the West End and score what may well turn out to be the most spectacular success of her career”.
Australia is flattered to be able to see so famous an actress in three premieres. Though the plays are not new, they have all been given entirely new productions, which London would dearly love to have seen before Miss Leigh set off on her royal progress. The accent is on glamour and a small fortune has been spent on mounting the plays, with London Sainthill designing Twelfth Night and Felix Kelly staging Duel Of Angels.
In the past, Australia had to be content to see such stars as Marie Tempest and Irene Vanbrugh in productions they had already played to death in London and elsewhere. They took them to Australia to make more money out of them before pensioning them off. Now, before seeing The Lady Of The Camellias, London has to wait until Miss Leigh has finished in Australia and New Zealand.
Miss Leigh is, of course, no stranger to Australia. Thirteen years ago she was out there with Laurence Olivier in three Old Vic productions – Richard III, The School For Scandal and The Skin Of Our Teeth and their pioneering at the head of a splendid company did much to open up the Antipodes and make up for the Stratford-upon-Avon players and other famous names who have since taken worthwhile productions there.
Of those earlier days Miss Leigh recalls one amusing story. A little boy, son of a hostess to the Oliviers, turned to his mother and asked, “Why is Lady Olivier called Miss Vitamin B?”
It is likely that this current tour will prove one of the happiest experiences of Vivien Leigh’s life. She has been directed by Robert Helpmann, with whom she has worked so happily in the past, she is back with the Old Vic once more, and her leading man is John Merivale, who has been her closest personal friend throughout the trying months which followed the collapse of their marriage.
We have reason to believe that when Miss Leigh brings her Marguerite Gautier to London, she will be greeted with applause likely to recall memories of that historic occasion at the Ambassadors in 1935 when in a single evening she leapt from obscurity to stardom.