Vengeance is the very stuff of theatre, a pure example of the first law of dramatic physics, which decrees that any action has to provoke a reaction. But the real revengers are probably backstage. While Hamlet wastes time fretting about the moral complexities of his vendetta, in offices and dressing rooms knives are inserted between the shoulder blades of competitors without namby-pamby hesitation.
Sometimes no weapon is necessary, since a facial smirk can be lethal. Early in this memoir, Michael Blakemore looks at Laurence Olivier, with whom he is arguing about the terms of his appointment as an associate director at the National Theatre in 1971. Olivier listens to Blakemore's complaints "with a smile on his lips that was razor-blade thin"; Blakemore realises he is daring to contradict Richard III. In the event, he kept his head, at least until Olivier was ousted by Peter Hall in a bout of establishment skullduggery. Hall, uttering endearments and compliments, then proceeded to make Blakemore's position untenable. In 1976 Blakemore quit, after accusing Hall of running the company dictatorially and questioning the occult arrangements that had been made for reimbursing him.
The stage blood that Blakemore sheds – in any case a concoction of corn syrup and dye, since luvvies lead charmed lives and must be ready to expire again at the next performance – should have dried long ago: his career did not suffer after his departure from the National, and when Hall's regime ended a few years later his criticisms were vindicated. Back then, Blakemore demonised his smirking enemy, and nicknamed the Barbican block where Hall then lived Satan Towers. Now he and Hall are both octogenarians, with no excess energy left to fuel a private war, and in his account of a recent meeting Blakemore acknowledges Hall's "persuasive charm" – though he is hardly forgiving, and describes Hall as "the greediest man I had ever known", an omnivore who gobbled up other peoples' ideas along with heaped plates of expensive nosh.
What makes Blakemore's book valuable is the historical hindsight it brings to its recollections of that remote feud. Forty years on, the personal tiffs and whispered denunciations hardly matter; Blakemore is now able to see that the interregnum between Olivier and Hall marked a turning point for the nation as well the National. His reading of events is almost an historical allegory. Olivier, who boosted morale by performing Henry V at the Old Vic during the blitz, is a Churchillian figure. Sacrificing his health and accepting a niggardly salary, he dwindled into an administrator because he believed he was performing a public service by founding a theatre that would be – and at its best still is – the envy of the world. Hall, a shrewd fixer and busy multi-tasker who absented himself from the National to direct operas or make television programmes, seems to worry most about maximising profits from his productions when they transferred to the West End or to Broadway. He belongs, in Blakemore's estimation, to the nastily rapacious Britain that Margaret Thatcher soon ushered in.
Blakemore considers Hall "a politician first and foremost", an impresario rather than an artist. Thatcher may have disliked him but the grocer's daughter from Grantham and the stationmaster's son from Suffolk were secretly akin. She challenged the miners, Hall called the bluff of the unionised stagehands who delayed the National's transfer from the Old Vic to the South Bank; both despised England's creaky hierarchy, but in toppling it and stripping its assets they did away with a sense of communal obligation "without which a National Theatre, and probably a health service, would never have come into being".
Backstage backstabbing is distanced by time, and also by Blakemore's physical retreat from London. The book's subplot concerns his discovery and renovation of a wrecked house in Biarritz, where he still lives. As concrete is poured to construct Denys Lasdun's fortress beside Waterloo bridge, Blakemore and his family camp out in the shell of a home that is being rebuilt around them. The contrast is piquant. Theatre happens inside architecture, as Blakemore says, but there is no affinity between the two arts: the one is ephemeral, almost accidental, while the other pretends to permanence. Domestic architecture makes us feel snug and existentially secure, yet Blakemore's French home is haunted, like a theatre, by spectres who have passed through it before him, and he wisely accepts his own transitoriness. He is only there, he admits, to look at the mountains and to plunge into the sea, and he is aware that both will outlast him, along with all the other poor players who strut and fret onstage for a few hours.
A book that I feared (and half hoped) would be merely vituperative turns out to be warm, wise, and even sternly moralistic as it looks back, more in sorrow than anger, at a defunct England. For me, best of all, it vividly recalls the great performances I saw, by Olivier and others, in productions by Blakemore and his colleagues during the 1970s. Theatre is evanescent, yet it can provide us with experiences so intense that we gratefully retain them for the rest of our lives. Memory compulsively preserves ancient grudges; more importantly, as Blakemore demonstrates, it is the impregnable archive of our affections.