ALL ABOUT EVE
Director: Ivo van Hove
Screenwriters: Ivo van Hove from an original screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, adapted from The Wisdom of Eve, a short story by Mary Orr.
Runtime: 130 mins.
Australian release date: 23 May 2019
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 15 May 2019.
Adapted from the eponymous Oscar-winning 1950 film written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve is the latest National Theatre Live production by Ivo van Hove. The acclaimed Belgian theatre director’s previous work for NT Live, A View From The Bridge, graced Australian screens in 2015. Introduced by the play’s producer, Sonia Friedman, this excellent adaptation upholds the reputation of the film, which some critics consider to be one of cinema’s greatest; and it was recorded at the Noël Coward Theatre in London’s West End on April 11th, so it’s hot off the stage, so to speak. It’s a gripping examination of aging, our obsession with celebrity, fascination with youth and more. Van Hove describes it as “Mankiewicz’s love letter to the theatre.”
Gillian Anderson is a tour-de-force as the caustic, aging Broadway star Margo Channing (played in the film version by Bette Davis), whose life is upended when she is introduced to young fan Eve Harrington (Lily James; Anne Baxter in the film). It transpires that Eve is a ‘stage-door Jenny’ who’s been to every single performance of Margo’s current show (today we’d probably call her a stalker). Taken backstage by Margo’s friend Karen (Monica Dolan), wife of the play's author Lloyd Richards (Rhashan Stone), Eve endears herself to Margo and her friends with a hard-luck story about her past and inveigles her way into the actress’s daily life. She also becomes friendly with Margo’s long-suffering boyfriend, theatre director Bill Sampson (Julian Ovenden). The only member of the star’s entourage who doesn’t warm to the young woman is Birdie (Sheila Reid), Margo’s maid, because she suspects her motives. As Eve’s presence becomes more intrusive and her ambition more overt, Margo begins to realise that her life is being taken over and her besotted fan is plotting to replace her, and in this treacherous endeavour she has enlisted the aid of the oleaginous, but influential, Broadway theatre critic Addison DeWitt (Stanley Townsend).
This is a play about women, about their capabilities and insecurities (not for nothing is it called All About Eve), and van Hove’s adaptation of Mankiewicz’s screenplay is sensational. He’s largely stuck to the original script, wisely so, but has made a few changes. It’s DeWitt’s narration that introduces us to the story, rather than Karen’s, and Margo’s and Bill’s ages have been upped to 50 and 42 respectively (in the film she’d just turned 40), but much of the dialogue remains the same. The witty discourse is dramatic and delivered with aplomb, especially by Anderson, who never allows Margo to lower her position, even while suffering pangs about her age - Margo’s a star and Anderson never lets the audience doubt it. Lily James’ Eve is as calculating as any person determined to rise to the top of their field, with a total disregard of the consequences of her behaviour. She’s a model of blind ambition, a ruthless practitioner of the ‘whatever it takes’ school of advancement, while hiding behind a mask of innocence. The other characters, without exception, also reveal the inconsistencies of the human condition.
This is a compelling night at the theatre, enhanced by van Hove’s direction and the skills of his outstanding creative team. Clever use of video footage has been incorporated into the slick set, which sees the actors seeming to peer down on the action on stage at times, like gods looking down from Olympus, plus there’s marvellous lighting by Jan Versweyveld and costume design by An D’Huys. Regrettably, National Theatre Live productions are only screened for a very limited time, so check your local listings this weekend. All About Eve has not lost its relevance or its ability to show how ruthless conduct is often deemed excusable if one is to rise to the top of the heap. However, it also reminds us that although this cruel behaviour is usually rewarded, it comes at great personal cost to the practitioner.