the oliviers theatre

Celebrating William Shakespeare

Hamlet at Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, Denmark, 1937. Vivien Leigh as Ophelia, Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Since his death on April 23, 1616, William Shakespeare has continued his reign as the most famous playwright of all time. Countless film adaptations, not to mention stage performances, have been made of his work. In the 20th century, no one was more famous for staging Shakespeare than Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. They performed in seven of the Bard’s most famous comedies and dramas during their 23 year relationship. Some of their joint endeavors were better critically received than others, but their command of the language and ability to surprise and move audiences proved successful. Actor Peter Wyngarde once said of Vivien and Larry: “The Oliviers brought speech to the English stage. Vivien was visual and Larry was oral. She learnt about ‘the word’ from him.”

Though Laurence Olivier almost unanimously received praise across the board for every Shakespeare play he ever did, critics were harder on Vivien. This was especially true of The Observer critic Kenneth Tynan who seemed determined to point out that Vivien was not in the same league as her husband when it came to the classics. Despite such reviews, Larry thought otherwise, saying in his book On Acting that Vivien was perfect for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and was the greatest Lady Macbeth he’d ever seen. He would know.

Romeo and Juliet, New York, 1940. Laurence Olivier as Romeo, Vivien Leigh as Juliet

Richard III, Australian Old Vic tour, 1948. Laurence Olivier as Richard, Vivien Leigh as Lady Anne

Antony and Cleopatra, London, 1951. Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, Laurence Olivier as Mark Antony

Twelfth Night, Stratford on Avon, 1955. Vivien Leigh as Viola, Laurence Olivier as Malvolio

Macbeth, Stratford on Avon, 1955. Laurence Olivier as Macbeth, Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth

Titus Andronicus, Stratford on Avon, 1955. Laurence Olivier as Titus, Vivien Leigh as Lavinia

Kendra is the designer and webmistress of vivandlarry.com. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait (Running Press, October 2013). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (6)

  1. In my opinion the point is that Olivier was the greatest ; nobody I can think of was near his stature on the stage but probably ctitics were too cruel to Vivien. True, perhaps Peggy Aschroft or Katherine Cornell were best equipped to be Larry’s partner in a technical sense but surely the combination of personal chemistry between them and Vivien’s magnetism both a star and as a woman in plays like “Anthony and Cleopatra” “Hamlet” and , most of all, “Macbeth” must have added something very special that many ctitics at that time missed.It.’ s really too bad that none ot these performances has been recorded, especially Macbeth! Our loss.

    Happy Easter , dear Kendra, to you and to all “Vivien and Larry”‘fellow fans.

  2. Kendra, this is the first time I’ve been to your site and I adore it! What a marvelous thing you’ve done through this website and what is obviously more than a simple fan page. Great design.

    –Courtney

  3. These images are amazing! I had no idea that they ever did Titus — I can’t imagine Viv as Lavinia, not because she wasn’t wonderful, but because of the brutality of the role. Fascinating post!

    1. I know what you mean! She didn’t get the most glowing reviews for her performance in Titus and it was the last play she and Larry acted in together before their divorce, but I think it would have been really interesting to se what she did with it!

      1. many biographies reported that this play marked the lowest ebb in the last difficult years of the Olivier’s marriage….as a matter of fact, being as it is almost an horror story ,a story of bloody revenge, the role of Lavinia was really dangerous for someone who had Vivien’s medical history. .

  4. I love all of your posts but I particularly thank you very much for this one. Shakespeare is one of my passions and I always wondered about Larry and Viv’s performances of his work. I went as far as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” but “Macbeth” or “Twelfth Night” came as a surprise for me!

    (What wouldn’t I give to have a time machine and have the chance to go back to see these wonderful actors perform, to actually see the deed, the very execution of their craft, and be overwhelmed by it? *sigh*)

    Always delighted to read your blog, it’s filled with warmth and dedication, it really is a pleasure!

    Cheers!
    Lu.

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