In a moment of dramatic brilliance, this week's new film Me and Orson Welles encapsulates the artist's predicament: how to reveal the human condition while taking short respite from oneself.
Yet Christian McKay achieves this in a portrayal of the American actor-director so uncannily true that it makes me ponder on the burden of early genius. McKay's Welles is bombastic, vain, cruel, fantastically egocentric and in every way the despotic ruler of his tiny universe.
While Zac Efron (fictional Richard Samuels) proves to be far more than a pretty face, it seems hardly fair that McKay takes second billing. The Lancashire-born former concert pianist has spent much of his theatrical career portraying the overweening genius and recreates him to the furthermost corner of his brain. Quite simply, McKay has turned himself inside out to become so "Welles" that I fairly shivered watching the screen.
It takes a tyrant to understand one and this is surely why Caesar, Welles's 1937 interpretation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as a fascistic allegory, was such a landmark in modern theatre. Indeed, I am left wondering that had the great 20th century dictators also been consumed by their own personalities in youth, if the world would have been spared the conflagrations they inspired.
The film's storyline, based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, tells how Richard spends a week with Welles as he prepares to launch Caesar at The Mercury Theatre. The movie, directed by Richard Linklater, has all the virtues of a first-class work of art. With its straight narrative, elegant screenplay, wonderful period costumes, sets, and music, it is most strikingly entertaining. My only caveat is that the first half-hour is rather wordy and younger audiences, unaware of the many historical references, may not see it through. Perhaps it's a show for oldies and film buffs, after all!
But I'm not surprised that McKay — and other actors like Simon Callow — have found Welles such an important source in expressing their own talent. Until I began writing this piece I knew little more of him than I did of McKay. I've now discovered that both his parents had died by the time he was 15 and that Maurice Bernstein, a Jewish physician from Chicago who had adored his mother, became his guardian.
This may explain why he thought he may be Jewish despite all evidence to the contrary, together with his loathing of racism and perhaps why he made his 1931 stage debut in Jew Suss.