Stage Door Review

London, GBR: All About Eve

Thursday, February 28, 2019

✭✭✭

by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, adapted & directed by Ivo van Hove 

Sonia Friedman Productions & Fox Stage Productions, Noel Coward Theatre, London

February 12-May 11, 2019

Karen: “Nothing is forever in the Theatre. Whatever it is, it's here, it flares up, burns hot and then it's gone”

Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screenplay for the Hollywood classic All About Eve is simply brilliant. While there’s is no doubt that the 1950 film is one of the greats, van Hove’s production makes you feel that the natural home for a story concerned with the lives of theatre people is in the theatre. He has assembled a flawless cast led by Gillian Anderson in a tremendous performance as Margo Channing. The acting, direction and Jan Versweyveld’s innovative design turn Mankiewicz’s script into an electrifying theatrical experience.

Those who complain that an already perfect film has no need of adaptation for the stage should remember that the same reasoning would prohibit stage productions of The Wizard of Oz. Mankiewicz’s film script is so literate, so witty, so well structured that it works just as well as a stage script. Plus the theatre can enhance the script’s inherent theatricality through the resources of the theatre in a way that a film cannot.

Van Hove follows Mankiewicz so closely that it is difficult to think of what he has omitted. Like the film the play opens at an awards ceremony with the theatre critic Addison DeWitt (Stanley Townsend) announcing that he will present the (fictitious) Sarah Siddons Award to Eve Harrington (Lily James). DeWitt says he will tell "more of Eve ... All about Eve, in fact, and the story moves into flashbacks narrated by Karen Richards (Monica Dolan), the best friend of Margo Channing and wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Rhashan Stone), who has written so many successful stage vehicles for Margo.

From Karen we find out how Margo takes in Eve, who sees Margo’s every performance but has no job and nowhere to stay. Margo makes Eve her personal secretary much to the displeasure of Margo’s longtime maid Birdie (Sheila Reid). Gradually, it becomes clear that Eve is not quite so selflessly devoted to Margo as Margo first thought. Without Margo’s knowledge Eve manages to get herself cast as Margo’s understudy in the play she is currently starring in. And when Margo has to miss a performance and Eve gets rave reviews, especially from DeWitt, a reckoning is due for all the characters.

From the very outset of the production van Hove plays a trick on the audience that marks his entire approach to the Mankiewicz’s story. Designer Jan Versweyveld’s set appears to be a solid, three-sided dark pink box that represents Margo’s private space. It is her dressing room/bedroom/living room. When DeWitt says he will tell us “all about Eve”, he goes around the stage left edge of the set and takes us on a tour of the entire backstage area around the set’s three walls, all his movements and interactions with the cast and crew recorded by a videographer whose images are projected on a stage-wide screen above the back wall of the set.

Then when Margo enters the set for the first time, the pink walls rise out of view and the entire backstage right up to the theatre walls is visible. This major theatrical gesture brings out the two major themes that imbue the drama. First, is that for the people in the play, especially a famous person like Margo Channing, there is no distinction between public and private. As in van Hove’s staging of A View from the Bridge in 2014 that placed the audience on three sides of the acting area, Margo and the people around have no privacy. They have no retreat. Van Hove places videographers even in the set’s kitchen and closed-off bathroom. He shows that as theatre people they are always acting even when in private, and some, like Margo, have been acting so long that they have forgotten what real emotion and real interactions are like. As for the people around Margo, Eve may be the most deceitful, but there is no one who does not deceive Margo to some extent.

At the same time Versweyveld’s set also has quite another implication. The three-sided set of Margo’s “private” room that rises and later descends, is very much like the hollow grey cube in van Hove’s A View from the Bridge that also rose and descended. In both cases the surrounding walls are more like the walls of a prison or a trap. What is worse in All About Eve is that when those private walls rise they merely reveal another set of walls surrounding them. Margo, who has spent her life in the theatre, really knows nothing about life except the theatre. She is trapped in a world of pretending and part of the action of the play is seeing whether she can find her way out. When near the end, the same pink walls descend around Eve Harrington, we certainly do not feel as if she has achieved the success she so hungered for. Rather, the walls emphasize how she, too, has become isolated and has lost what little freedom she thought she had. 

Thus, van Hove is able in putting Mankiewicz’s screenplay on stage to keep us constantly aware, in a way a film cannot, of the artifice of the theatre and how that is a central metaphor for the lives of the play’s characters. In van Hove’s production, even when the cast and crew are “off-stage” and supposedly not acting, they are, of course still acting. Looking back we recognize that DeWitt’s seemingly haphazard ramble backstage was really a tightly choreographed sequence.

Putting Mankiewicz’s screenplay on stage also permits an entire cast of today’s actors to essay the roles that Mankiewicz has so beautifully written. Prime among these Gillian Anderson as Margo. There is no hint of camp, such as has accrued to the film. Anderson plays Margo as woman who is so completely devoted to her art that she will let nothing stand in her way. Unfortunately, to quote Shakespeare’s Feste, “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”. Margo has turned 50 (it is 40 in the film) and she finds her corsets for her role are becoming too tight. More seriously, she wonders if she can continue playing characters who are 20 years younger. Anderson brings this out powerfully and without a word every time she stares in her dressing table mirror (in which there is a hidden video camera) and we see how closely she scrutinizes her face.

Margo is not without a heart. She has kept her faithful maid Birdie (Sheila Reid), once a vaudeville performer, with her long after she has become useful. And she takes in the young Eve, who poses as Margo’s most devoted fan but whom circumstances have left destitute and homeless. It’s not surprising that it is Birdie who first notices that Eve’s total devotedness to Margo may have another side to it. Birdie notices that Eve is studying Margo’s every move “like a blueprint”. When Eve arranges a long-distance phone call to Bill, who is in California, for his 42nd birthday (32nd in the film), to be followed by a party, Margo sees that Eve is intruding too far into her private life. 

Anderson shows Margo gradually turn from cool to icy. At the party Anderson gives a virtuoso performance of a woman descending step by step into drunkenness, from tipsiness, to meanness, to oblivion. What makes Anderson’s performance so extraordinary from this point on is how despite all the insults Margo hurls at all those around her, Anderson gives us the sense that Margo is speaking without control and regrets what she is doing, yet is unable to stop her tantrum once it has begun.

Anderson retains Margo’s hidden feeling of how she has demeaned herself through most of the rest of the play, until a long heart-to-heart conversation with Karen when they are stuck out of town and Anderson shows us that Margo is no termagant but a complex human being, aware of her frailties and wishing to accommodate herself to the changes time has wrought. Those who have only see Anderson on television will have no idea of how effortlessly she can command an entire stage.

What time has wrought, of course, is the rise of Eve from nobody, to personal assistant, to Margo’s understudy to bonafide star, the person who is being honoured with an award at the start pf the show. Lily James is excellent in concealing Eve’s calculation beneath a façade of breathless idolatry. James makes Eve’s sob story sound so convincing that we, like Margo, initially don’t want to believe Birdie’s suspicions. Yet, when Margo catches Eve holding up Margo’s costume and pretending to bow to an audience, we have to let go of any sympathy we had for Eve. At the same time, in gesture and tone of voice, James’s Eve becomes more brazen and her ploys more obvious.  

The third character in the unholy triad of main characters is Stanley Townsend as powerful theatre critic Addison DeWitt. While other characters have plots to shake Margo out of the dreadful mood that has descended on her since the party for Bill, her boyfriend whom everybody knows is eight years her junior, DeWitt has more sinister plans that will affect both Margo and especially Eve. As with James’s performance as Eve, Townsend gives us no hint that his naturally cynical nature would seek any greater outlet than in wit. Yet, just like James, Townsend masterfully reveals more and more of his character’s true intentions the closer he reaches his goal. When he does state his final goal the effect is absolutely chilling.

These three actors are supported by an equally superb cast.  Julian Ovenden makes Margo’s boyfriend Bill Sampson not as complex as she is but not unreflective but concerned about his future. We sense he dislikes Margo’s “age obsession” as he calls it because he has one too. Ovenden plays Bill as a once much-desired young man who has grown a bit louche and is all to aware of it. We sense that he and Margo don’t merely love each other but even more need someone to love them to give lives that suddenly seem empty some modicum of meaning. 

Monica Dolan is a delight as the principal narrator Karen Richards. Not a theatre professional herself, she is a perfect mediator between the audience and the play. She can look at the situation we see on stage more objectively and find the humour, irony and danger in it. The very naturalness Dolan expresses reassures us that no matter how badly things may go we still have someone who can interpret the events in a straightforward way. In this Karen is opposite from the lawyer Alfieri in A View from the Bridge, who admits that events are spiralling out of his control.

Many people will think that there is no reason to adapt All About Eve to the stage because it is already perfect as a film. Ivo van Hove’s direction and Jan Versweyveld’s design demonstrate that it is only in the theatre that this story about theatre people can be told in a way that keeps the theatrical and metatheatrical nature of the story inescapably within our consciousness. When you hear how witty, literate and perceptive Mankiewicz’s script is, you begin to feel that that it has almost been unfair not to allow another generation of actors, especially ones of such a high calibre as van Hove has assembled, to essay these characters too and make them their own. Like so many of van Hove’s productions his All About Eve strips away all the conventional thinking about the work and allows us to see it in a brand new way. It’s an awe-inspiring experience.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Lily James as Eve and Gillian Anderson as Margo; Sheila Reid as Birdie, Gillian Anderson as Margo and Monica Dolan as Karen; Julian Ovenden as Bill, Rhashan Stone as Lloyd, Monica Dolen as Karen, Gillian Anderson as Margo and (back to camera) Sheila Reid as Birdie; Lily James as Eve and Stanley Townsend as DeWitt. © 2019 Jan Versweyveld. 

For tickets, visit allabouteveplay.com.