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All About Eve
By Joseph L. Mankiewicz, adapted and directed by Ivo van Hove
Noel Coward Theatre, London WC2
And to be broadcast live to 700 cinemas on Thu 11 April 2019, details at www.ntlive.com
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
There's a striking moment in Ivo van Hove's new production of All About Eve when Gillian Anderson as the Broadway star Margo Channing sits alone at her dressing room mirror and we see, in projection, her exquisite face age rapidly before our eyes. A modern filmic trick perhaps by typical of van Hove. It gets to the nub of the play and does so with his signature blending of stage and screen tricks.
van Hove, who came to prominence running the much lauded Toneelgroep Amsterdam, has in recent few years been making quite a splash in the Anglo theatre world, both here and in the US. On the surface he's an unusual choice to direct a stage version of this 1950 movie classic, an exemplar of witty sophisticated screenwriting of the period. The piece has attained a camp status (with gay men of a certain age able to quote chunks of it), in tribute to Bette Davis's star turn in the original. But van Hove himself has a notable track record in translating classic films having recently tackled Visconti and Bergman to name just two and his acclaimed version of Network at the National Theatre is also now wowing them in New York.
His signature style unites a sort of ultra-modern minimalism (doesn't 'do' period) with an expressionist's love of the theatrical. Steadicams constantly prowl his stages and his instinct for cutting to them is second to none. Designer Jan Versweyweld has again worked wonders here. We are both back stage and on stage at the same time, film verisimilitude layered onto theatrical artifice. PJ Harvey's music, too, greatly enhances the mood in Tom Gibbons' eloquent sound design.
van Hove deconstructs a much loved text, but does it with respect and his triumph is that he prevents it descending into mere campy theatricality. Purists who decry his use of screens will wail that "it's crying out to be a film" but they miss the point. For van Hove, the central place of video on stage is no different to actors wearing mics, which is now commonplace. Embrace the technology and get over it.
The plot revolves around Margo Channing, a highly regarded but aging Broadway star who is introduced to an ardent young fan, Eve. She takes pity on her but soon Eve insinuates herself into Channing's life totally, becoming first her assistant and then her understudy and finally scheming to steal her husband.
It's a great story and there's isn't a weak link in this superb cast who tell it. Anderson, always greatly underrated, makes her Margo mordant but never cruel, she is swept along by the tsunami of Eve without even realising it. The fact that Eve comes across at times as sympathetic is testament to just how great Lily James is in the role. She's no monster, just a junkie, drunk on celebrity.
Monica Dolan is a stand out too in the pivotal role as Margo's best friend Karen while Rhashan Stone plays her egotistical playwright husband, who betrays Margo. Musicals star Julian Ovenden is perfectly cast as Margo's suave husband/director, Bill, and Stanley Townsend's brown baritone voice is perfect for dispensing the acerbic bon mots of famous critic Addison DeWitt.
van Hove famously said "I don't know what being faithful to the text means". Here he fillets a classic, updates it without upending it, draws out its true ongoing relevance and reminds us just how great Mankiewicz's sparkling screenplay was.