Theatre review: All About Eve on NT-Live

Theatre review: All About Eve on NT-Live

All About Eve

Noel Coward Theatre
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Adapted and directed by Ivo van Hove
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Lily James, Monica Dolan, Ian Drysdale, Tsion Habte, Jessie Mei Li, Julian Ovenden, Shiela Reid, Rhashan Stone, Stanley Townsend, Philip Voyzey

NT-Live - 11th April 2019

Belgian director Ivo van Hove clearly has a great interest in classic cinema; it's something that is evident not just in his choice of adaptations of The Postman Always Rings Twice ('Obsession' shown on a previous NT-Live broadcast) and Visconti's The Damned, but the use of cinematic techniques, projections, split-screen and special effects to open up the drama are common in his productions for theatre and opera, even directing an opera version of Brokeback Mountain.  While it can often feel intrusive and, for want of a better word 'cheating' as far as 'pure theatre' goes, I think any techniques that enhance the drama are valid and worth exploring. it certainly seems to be appropriate and work very well in his adaptation of the classic Bette Davis vehicle All About Eve.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 film is certainly of a bygone era in terms of arch acting styles and melodrama, but it's a film that remains a classic and still connects with modern audiences. The reasons for that are obvious, since the film is itself about Hollywood glamour, which never fails to fascinate even though its reputation may have been tarnished recently. Indeed, long before #MeToo and the Weinstein scandal, All About Eve presented an intriguing glimpse behind the facade of the industry and its treatment of women. Regardless of the style, there are clearly deeper issues in the original film that still resonate, perhaps even more deeply today.

All of which means it's material that is ripe for updating to a modern setting, with perhaps even more of an edge in the light of recent allegations and revelations and with a change in attitudes. Surprisingly then, director Ivo van Hove doesn't go for any radical reworking of the original story. It's not specifically set in the 1940s or 1950s, but since drama itself inhabits many time-frames, it's appropriately set in a kind of timeless Hollywood glamour era. The story still deals with Margo Channing, a successful but aging actress who takes a young understudy Eve Harrington under her wing, only to start feeling threatened by the younger woman. And, it turns out, with good reason.

No radical reworking of the story then but certainly plenty of imagination and innovation applied to the theatrical presentation. Since the source of the play (the film being more of an obvious model for Ivo van Hove's adaptation than Mary Orr's original short story 'The Wisdom of Eve') straddles a line between theatrical and cinematic, it's appropriate them that Van Hove attempts to make the best of both worlds, and of course, there's another dimension here with the play being filmed and projected live to cinema screens across the world in the NT-Live presentation. It wouldn't be like van Hove to fail to notice the significance of that and play up to it.

One of the benefits of the filmed NT-Live broadcasts is that it does indeed present an entirely different angle on a performance than the audience in the theatre would see. Van Hove clearly knows this and in some respect his having a film crew on the stage projecting close-ups to the audience is a recognition of this fact. It's wanting the audience in the theatre to have the same benefits of the detail that traditionally only cinema viewers (of movies as well as filmed theatre) are able to enjoy. That's part of the reason perhaps, but there are other benefits in this particular case.

The most obvious is that it gives audiences the opportunity to see the detail in the acting performances, which in turn means that the performers can give more subtle and nuanced performances. In practice however that doesn't initially seem to be the case with All About Eve. Gillian Anderson's performance as Margo Channing is dialled up to glamour diva room-swanning proportions, and Lily James is similarly over-the-top in Eve's effusive and highly expressive attentions towards her idol. What you have to remember (or discover if you aren't already familiar with the subject) is that both are actors, both are playing roles or living up to them, and - perhaps most significantly, both are women: very competitive women.

What starts out as rather mannered then soon reveals other layers at work, and Ivo van Hove's camera operators (and the NT Live cameras) are there to capture the nuance and the detail in the what lies behind the broad gestures. Occasionally Van Hove will resort to cinematic techniques - Margo Channing's horror at viewing herself in a dressing room mirror suddenly aged by computer effects is striking and shocking - but by using the cameras backstage, revealing the truth of what goes on behind closed doors in kitchens at a party, in a rest-room at a restaurant, he delves behind the glamorous facade both of the movie industry and the behaviour of two women struggling to keep on top of a business that can destroy them at will.

But not too deeply. You would expect that Ivo van Hove could update this much more graphically to a modern context, but he remains faithful to the nature of the classic film that a not inconsiderable amount of people (mostly women in my experience, and judging by the predominately female cinema audience in attendance at my screening) hold as special. And with good reason. The allure of the theatre and cinema relies on maintaining a certain fiction of glamour, of not stripping bare to the harsh reality, and for many people - men as well as women - the struggle to present an image for fear of being revealed, for fear of getting old or being seen as redundant and irrelevant must be maintained just as much as the persona of any theatre or Hollywood actor.

Ivo van Hove's production of All About Eve might not be as radical or as challenging then as some of his more experimental works, but his treatment is one that is appropriate for the subject, one that brings along fans of the original movie but makes its themes accessible and meaningful for a new audience, themes that are still very much relevant.

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