Screen to stage adaptations have become increasingly common in recent years and 2019 will see plenty of new film-based shows heading to our theatres. Predominantly musicals, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 is in preview at the Savoy, as is Waitress starring Katherine McPhee at the Adelphi, not to mention a Theatre Royal Haymarket run for Heathers The Musical at the end of last year, while there is a strong possibility that both the musical Mean Girls and Disney’s Frozen will become the latest Broadway imports to hit the West End. Meanwhile, the adaptation of Trainspotting Live was lauded at festivals up and down the country, proving that dramatic film can also have plenty to offer as a stage experience.
Ivo van Hove has been at the vanguard of this new style, blending film and stage techniques to create a new subgenre of the arts, one which uses onstage technology to retain a story’s movie heritage, while playing with the theatricality of the material to either draw our or downplay the emotional experience of the characters. van Hove creates a hybrid experience within his adaptations that ensure the audience remain conscious of its film origins and by using the same fluidity of pace as cinema, never allowing the show to become self-consciously stagy or artificial.
It is an effect that can be hugely divisive, and while Network at the National Theatre with Bryan Cranston enjoyed a sell-out run and a current Broadway transfer, it split opinion with its use of roaming cameras and giant video screens to comment on the responsibility of television news. Likewise, an earlier production of Obsession at the Barbican with Jude Law, based on The Postman Always Rings Twice earned even more derision for the vast metaphorical hinterland it created on stage in which a highly stylised film noir played out. This director’s work is either your taste or it isn’t, so responses to this new production of All About Eve are likely to be equally contentious.
The 1950 film is one of the finest movies ever made, a sharply told and biting behind-the-scenes examination of star power and female ageing in an industry that is constantly looking for fresh faces. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film is a satirical, but probably truthful, depiction of the pursuit of fame and the unstoppable ruthlessness of an individual hungry for the limelight, told through the interaction of six characters whose lives are changed by the stage door appearance of a seemingly gentle and starstruck young woman who inveigles herself into the life of stage goddess Margot Channing.
van Hove’s production has everything we’ve now come to expect from the superstar director with it’s leading lady boxed-in by the apparent limitations of her life. Long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld creates a bare, ugly dusky pink room, a vast emptiness containing nothing but a dressing table (in a fixed position permanently on stage as the scenes change). Margot is devoted to the theatre, but despite her lover Bill, a director, and best friend couple Karen and Lloyd, a playwright, she remains at a distance from them. Like previous van Hove protagonists including Hedda Gabler and Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge, Margot is in a box of her own making, one that the events of the play will help or force her to break out of.
Versweyveld soon starts to play with the space and on three sides, the walls lift to reveal a backstage area, a semi-junk yard of props and set, dominated by large-scale photographic portraits of Margot carefully positioned to catch your eye. The point is to suggest a world beyond the theatre where artifice is stripped away, a real life far from the self-creating dramas of this little set where another kind of life is being lived if only Margot can move beyond ego and her inherent prickliness towards it. Pointedly in van Hove’s direction, for a long time we only see her in this room and the attached bathroom, never able to break out of the confines she has set around herself.
As the story unfolds, van Hove introduces the camera techniques used to such effect in Network, slowly at first, a live feed from the dressing table mirror splayed across those bare pink walls, now a giant video screen, revealing the unrelenting close-up of Margot’s face as she removes her theatrical make-up. Later what we see on the screens becomes more complicated, no longer a direct reflection of reality but a distorted image of herself, the slowly ageing face a fantasy project from her mind, fearing the irrelevance she knows is coming with Eve hot on her trail.
Repeatedly, the cameras are used to show us off-stage activity, Margot’s quite graphic bathroom reactions to the famously “bumpy” party scene for Bill’s birthday in which she creates havoc for her guests – if you’ve ever wanted to see Gillian Anderson drunkenly vomiting then now’s your chance – a location repurposed later when Eve has finally conquered this space, using the bathroom to hide her reaction to critic Addison’s meddling. More of Bill’s party happens in the crowded kitchen, also stretched soundlessly across the vast screens, as the main stage is given over to Margot’s self-pity at the piano. It’s an interesting technique, one that creates texture but also distracts the audience from what is happening on the main stage, an approach that feels purposeful to retain a distance from the emotional lives of the characters, as if to say these are trivial self-perpetuating dramas that are less important than the overall effect – as one character rather amusingly points out “they’re actors, they’ll get over it”.
All About Eve is rich with detail which Versweyveld subtly changes as Eve’s power grows. Look out for the slow replacement of pictures in the backstage area, with Margot dwarfed or obscured by Eve portraits instead. An D’Huys’s costumes also subtly suggest the changing of the guard, taking Margot from the striking red that is a feature of all her costumes for much of the play including some stunning red dresses, morphing into black and white as she loosens her grip on fame and allows her inner life and love for Bill to change her. Note too that Eve adopts the signature red as her power grows, a baton handed between the generations as their priorities shift.
It’s no easy thing to step into the shoes of Bette Davis, but Gillian Anderson has Margot Channing exactly. Somehow it manages to be a bigger and smaller performance at the same time, showcasing first and foremost the deeply riven insecurities that drive her more outlandish behaviour. Anderson’s Margot is waspish rather than vicious so as the play opens, she is entirely caught up in her own life – the performance she’s just given and the man about to fly to Hollywood – that makes her treat the nervous Eve with a carelessness born of distraction rather than malice, a singular encounter that will be scarcely remembered by anyone tomorrow except the star struck girl.
Yet as Eve roots her way into her life, Anderson charts how brittle Margot’s ease and surety really was. While Davis could only be spiteful and ranty, our modern times, allow Anderson to be an ugly drunk, slurring and staggering around the party scene, upsetting each of her guests in turn. What follows is a chance for rehabilitation, a break through moment that in the rest of the play allows Margot to pursue the things she really wants, a transformation that Anderson makes both credible and warming.
Lily James as Eve matches her at every moment with a carefully constructed performance that draws the audience into her game as much as anyone around her. First, we see this sweet and awkward girl bat her eyes shyly in Margot’s dressing room but soon actively supervises the scene change. James’s Eve lurks at every opportunity, sidling around the set to overhear important conversations and manoeuvring herself into position, ready to grasp her chance when it comes. And note in the relayed kitchen scenes on the video screen her eyes seek out Margot’s director boyfriend Bill at every opportunity.
The play notably shifts a gear in the second hour as Eve takes her first big step into Margot’s shadow, and from that point on James shows us the duality of her character, the pleasant face no longer quite masking the frustrated schemer. Her palpable fury after a showdown with Bill leads to a well-played tantrum, while the steely switch in a similar confrontation with Karen in a restaurant bathroom is James’s highpoint in a role that showcases her versatility and ability to command the stage as well as her co-star.
The supporting performances are equally full of texture, creating the world around the warring women that is just as dominated by ego, bitterness and struggles for power. Julian Ovenden rises above all of that with a performance that draws out Bill’s essential decency, the good-guy director whose relationship with his leading lady is full of chemistry. There is a genuine romantic feeling between them that Ovenden fills with hurt as their partnership sours, while still making Bill a match for the tempestuous Margot.
It’s wonderful to see Monica Dolan in a more glamorous role, playing friend and confidant Karen who develops an excellent partnership with Rashan Stone’s Lloyd as their own marriage is affected by Margot’s behaviour and Eve’s machinations. Stanley Townsend is superb as the silky critic Addison DeWitt who makes for a more physically imposing figure than the film’s George Sanders, and while he feels underused his own big confrontation with Eve is both shocking and tense.
The movie to stage adaptation is becoming increasingly prevalent and an NT Live screening of this one that translates it back to cinema will add a further dimension. Eschewing an interval as always and running at two-hours straight through, van Hove’s distinctive and often stylised work doesn’t set out to provide a deep connection to the characters, often drowning them out with music or distracting with video and as a result, you may not feel emotionally satisfied by an approach that reinforces the central message of All About Eve – nothing is ever what you think it is. So while the dialogue and scenarios are drawn directly from Mankiewicz, if you want a faithful depiction of every line, shot and intonation then just watching the film again is probably advisable. This All About Eve is something quite different, same story deliberately new frame with staging that pushes at the boundaries of theatre and film.