United Kingdom Joseph L Mankiewicz’s All About Eve: Adapted and directed for the stage by Ivo van Hove and directed for the screen by Nicholas Wickham. Broadcast live from the Noël Coward Theatre, London, to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 11.4.2019. (JPr)
Adaptor & Director – Ivo van Hove
Set & Lighting designer – Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer – An D’Huys
Composer – PJ Harvey
Sound designer – Tom Gibbons
Margo Channing – Gillian Anderson
Eve Harrington – Lily James
Karen Richards – Monica Dolan
Addison DeWitt – Stanley Townsend
Bill Sampson – Julian Ovenden
Lloyd Richards – Rhashan Stone
Birdie – Sheila Reid
Max Fabian – Ian Drysdale
Phoebe – Tsion Habte
Claudia Caswell – Jessie Mei Li
Pianist – Philip Voyzey
All About Eve has been adapted for the stage by acclaimed theatre director Ivo van Hove and stays – I understand – mainly true to the 1950 Twentieth Century Fox film, starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, that was written and directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz. If, like me, you have never seen the film does not mean you will not know the plot of All About Eve because it is a classic Hollywood tale of an ageing star whose career is derailed by a young pretender. (If you have recently seen The Favourite you will have known the plot before sitting in the theatre or cinema to see this.) The story introduces us to Margo Channing (Gillian Anderson) who is the toast of Broadway but who – as she readily admits in a drunken tirade during the play – is over 50. Margo is currently appearing in the hit play Aged in Wood, written by Lloyd Richards (Rhashan Stone) and directed by her younger lover Bill Sampson (Julian Ovenden). One night her close friend Karen Richards (Monica Dolan) introduces her to one of her biggest fans Eve Harrington (Lily James) who has apparently seen every performance in New York after seeing her first in San Francisco. Eve tells Margo a sob story about growing up poor in Wisconsin and losing her young husband in World War II. Moved by the touching story, Margo hires Eve as her assistant though her companion, Birdie (Sheila Reid), is not best pleased by this.
However, things begin to spiral out of control in familiar fashion from age-old stage, film or tv dramas. Eve seems to anticipate Margo’s every need, including placing a late-night phone call to Bill in Hollywood when Margo forgets his birthday. Margo’s distrust and bitterness towards Eve increases, especially after catching her taking a bow to an empty theatre wearing her costume for Aged in Wood. Margo exhibits signs of a burgeoning paranoia that Eve is secretly attempting to undermine her career. Margo asks producer Max Fabian (Ian Drysdale) to hire Eve for his office, however Eve – without Margo knowing – becomes her understudy which only increases her suspicions. Margo’s friends – as is often the case – don’t know what is really going on and Karen feels so sorry for Eve that in the hope of humbling Margo, she arranges for her to miss a performance so Eve must give it in her place. All the city’s theatre critics get an invite, including the acerbic Addison DeWitt (Stanley Townsend), and Eve triumphs.
‘A Star is Born’? Possibly, but there is a plot twist looming, which – whether those involved, or the watching audience, realise it or not – holds a mirror up to the current #MeToo movement. There is an ambivalence here as to who is predator, who is prey? (Spoiler alert) Eve is an arch-manipulator with the ability to twist those she encounters round her little finger and still appear blameless. At a birthday party for Bill when things begin to unravel for Margo, she tells Eve to talk to Addison DeWitt about their shared love of the theatre. ‘I’m afraid Mr DeWitt might find me boring after too long,’ says Eve knowingly coyly. ‘Oh you won’t bore him, honey,’ says Margo. ‘You won’t even get the chance to talk.’ In 2019 what do we understand by this? It could certainly throw doubt as to who could be considered the ‘victim’ in anything that might transpire. (This debate is a minefield I fear to tread and so will exit stage left.)
Margo has sussed exactly what Eve is up to when Bill arrives for his party and spends several minutes locked in conversation with her. Margo confronts Bill but he says she should be ashamed of herself for doubting him. Her tantrum over, Margo regains her poise leading to the film/play’s most famous line as Margo says ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night’ …and so it proves. At the end Eve has got what she wants professionally; however – as her deceit returns to haunt her – she ends up alone and a puppet to the whims of others. Though Margo leaves the story before the end she appears to live happily ever after.
Van Hove’s staging surely worked better in the cinema than in the theatre, especially if you were seated rather far back. There was a stilted sense of ‘theatre’ to the opening scenes but – especially from that birthday party on – the drama got an unnerving grip on me with PJ Harvey’s spare score giving what we saw a menacing uncurrent. Huge photos of Margo border the action and we are never far removed from backstage at a theatre. The action is patrolled by cameras that brings the audience an insight into significant happening offstage and is a metaphor for the public’s need to microscopically examine the lives of current celebrities. At one point we even see Margo staggering drunkenly around the bathroom and ending with her head in the toilet bowl. This use of video is at its best when it reveals the inner thoughts of the characters such as when Margo does an impression of Munch’s The Scream as she looks into a mirror and her face morphs into an elderly woman. The issue of roles for woman of a certain age on Broadway, in Hollywood, as well as elsewhere, is as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1950.
All About Eve gets two outstanding performances in the central roles. Gillian Anderson is less of the harridan-like caricature Norma Desmond gets from Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and her Margo is more a totally believable ‘diva’ who is prone to harrowing meltdowns because she is full of insecurity and human frailty. Lily James’s puppy dog eagerness soon become something more sinister, though she retains an air of ‘who me?’ innocence until Eve gets her comeuppance. Anderson and James get excellent support – some shaky American accents notwithstanding – particularly from Monica Dolan in her Olivier Award-winning performance as Karen who finds her loyalty divided almost equally between Margo, Eve and her husband Lloyd. Equally as good is Stanley Townsend as the suave-talking DeWitt, who has the wit (sorry!) to turn the tables on Eve at the end of the play. DeWitt however is a rather underwritten role, as is that of the two-dimensional director, Bill Sampson. It is to Julian Ovenden’s credit that we root for Bill as he stays devoted to Margo despite everything she puts him through. Everyone else gets even less to work with but there are solid performances from Rhashan Stone (Lloyd Richards), Sheila Reid (Birdie), Ian Drysdale (Max Fabian) and Jessie Mei Li’s Claudia Caswell, an aspiring actress.
I came to All About Eve as a completely blank canvas: I had never seen the original film or any of Ivo van Hove’s previous work, nor had I seen a National Theatre Live screening before, despite this being their tenth year. If what has gone before was half as good as All About Eve I will regret for a long while what I must have missed over this last decade!
For more about National Theatre Live click here.
All About Eve continues as the Noël Coward Theatre until 11 May click here.