Though the one-man show is one of my most dreaded of all theatrical genres, Rosebud definitely and delicately reaches the parts of the man it celebrates more than most. Subtitled “the lives of Orson Welles”, it is far more than a mere biographical trawl through the early and notable triumphs of youth and the disappointments and decline of old age, though both are inevitably detailed.
Rather, this play strives to get to the heart as well as the art of a man who created Citizen Kane, one of the defining cultural documents of our time that is routinely labelled the greatest film ever made; but though it was the early making of him, it was also, chillingly, the unmaking of him, partly because of the powerful enemies he made with it – notably the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst -- but also because of the weight of its success freighted the rest of his career.
He was signed to an unprecedented four-picture deal when he arrived in Hollywood, aged barely 24, after bedazzling the New York theatre world (and sending great swathes of the population into a panic that the end of the world was nigh when he did a radio broadcast of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds that led them to believe that what was being described was actually happening). But though Welles survived powerful attempts to have Citizen Kane suppressed, the movie establishment took its revenge with his second big film The Magnificent Ambersons that suffered the unkindest cut(s) of all when artistic control was taken from him and it was re-edited against his wishes.
But Welles, like other theatre-schooled actors from Olivier to Kenneth Branagh, identified mostly closely with the classics of Shakespeare, and particularly with the life force of Falstaff, whom he later came to resemble physically as well as emotionally in terms of his growing girth. Christian McKay, an actor new to me, affects this transformation most gracefully before our very eyes; but then the whole performance is a lesson in inhabiting a role as well as commentating on it at the same time.
Mark Jenkins’ script – which won a Fringe First when the play was first seen at Edinburgh in 2004 – invaluably supports him in achieving this, as does Josh Richards’ understated direction that never pushes for attention in its own right.