Robert Kaplow’s source novel and Linklater’s sprightly adaptation sprinkle a little fiction on Welles’s very real, radical staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ and offer a sideways view of one of the most precocious, flawed talents of the twentieth century. In 1937, Welles was just 22, pre-‘War of the Worlds’, pre-‘Citizen Kane’, but already a darling of the New York theatre scene and able to wrest art from chaos on a wing and a prayer. Efron’s Richard – played with an attractive, puckish energy and loosely based on a real character – is a window on Welles’s world at just enough of a distance from the great man that the director’s loud personality doesn’t dominate. All roads lead to Welles, but we also witness a brief affair between Richard and Mercury staffer Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), during which Richard learns that the public and the private are one and the same in this theatrical hothouse. Even the loss of his virginity infringes on Welles’s mantra: ‘There is one simple rule: I own the store!’
McKay’s turn as Welles is hugely enjoyable, the right mix of extreme confidence and a dash of vulnerability. Physically and vocally, he’s very convincing: his Welles is a bullish presence among his actors but he also displays cracks in the great man’s armour: he whispers a sincere ‘thank you’ to his producer (Eddie Marsan) and tells Richard how he’s adapting ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ for radio: ‘“Ambersons” is about how everything gets taken away from you,’ he says, a reminder that Welles lost both parents by the time he was 15.
What’s most admirable about Linklater’s production is that it never loses sight of the play at its heart. The crescendo is not a romance or any other distraction, but the outcome of rehearsals during which we and the cast believe a disaster is pending. There’s a strong ensemble flavour, characterised by the simultaneously selfish and clubbable tendencies of the actors, which makes for a lightly comic experience but also for a portrait of a theatre company that feels warm and true.