In the age of #MeToo, Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of the Hollywood classic feels dated despite splendid performances.
Gillian Anderson in All About Eve. Image: Jan Versweyveld.
The very fabulous Gillian Anderson plays Margot Channing in this Ivo van Hove-directed adaptation of the classic film, staged in London and brought to the world by National Theatre Live, while Lily James (Cousin Rose in Downton Abbey) plays Eve. The production also stars Julian Ovendon as Margot's lover Bill, Monica Dolan as Karen, and Rhashan Stone as Karen’s playwright husband.
The famed 1950 film starred Bette Davis and Anne Baxter and won six Oscars. But the original film script by writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz – which was inspired by a short story called The Wisdom of Eve by a writer called Mary Orr – now feels dated.
All About Eve is about women behaving badly – very badly in the case of Eve and Margot. Driven by ambition in the case of Eve, and insecurity, terror and monumental ego in the case of Margot, these days this story of female manipulation and betrayal is kind of hard to stomach.
Eve is either obsequious or ragingly single-minded, and Margot is either self-aggrandising and demanding, or abject. The men are innocent parties to all this female conniving and carrying on, apart from the evil drama critic, Addison de Witt, a charming villain played by Stanley Townsend, who doesn’t miss a chance to make good on his opportunities.
Van Hove has reproduced the film according to the script, while adding his usual bells and whistles technology to remind us how celebrities forfeit their privacy, and to let us in on intimate moments. Video gives us the ‘backroom intel’ – we see characters who are ostensibly ‘offstage’, in kitchens and bathrooms (Margot vomits in the loo and then we’re shown a close-up of her sick – why?), while overhearing their conversations. Margot, examining herself in the mirror, finds her rapidly ageing face staring back. Eve sees herself in the same mirror morphing into Margot.
Of course the great bankable stars of Broadway did hold terrific personal sway, at least until their ‘last f---able day’ as Amy Schumer puts it and as Margo’s story attests. Yet without reference to gender politics, or at least a nod to who held the real balance of power at a time when women had to be strong and clever and manipulative to make good on their temporary erotic capital, or any engagement with the sexist dynamics underpinning the scenario, the whole thing can come across as misogynistic.
It wouldn’t if we weren’t expected to take it all so damn seriously. The play lacks the required high camp sensibility which defined the film and counterbalanced the tragedy, the divine bias-cut gowns and fur coats notwithstanding. (The fur coats are faux; Anderson is famously a supporter of the no fur movement.) Van Hove wants to give us the private and public selves of Margot and Eve, yet the forced acknowledgement of theatrical artifice, with the staging exposed and the videos and mirrors ‘laying the characters bare’, seems rather to reduce the sense of depth and nuance.
Anderson and James are both splendid, especially when the tension between them ramps up. Dolan shows her powerful acting chops as Karen, who, in a burst of manipulative agency herself, brings things to a head, and Sheila Reid delivers pithy observations as servant Birdie. Music by PJ Harvey adds to the overall tragic feel.
By the end, I was left wondering ‘why?'. The answer to that seems to be Fox Stage Productions, the live theatre division of Twentieth Century Fox Film that was formed in 2013 to produce stage adaptations of famous Hollywood films.
3 stars out of 5 ★★★
All About Eve
National Theatres Live
Original script by Joseph L Mankiewicz
Adapted and directed for the stage by Ivo van Hove
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions and Fox Stage Productions
in cinemas from 25 May 2019