National Theatre: All About Eve

ALL ABOUT EVE,   UK, 2019.  Starring Gillian Anderson, Lily James, Monica Dolan, Julian Ovendon, Sheila Reid, Rashan Stone. Directed by Ivo van Hove. 130 minutes.  No rating available.

Movie-watchers, especially those who love the movies from the Golden Years of Hollywood, remember the 1950 Oscar-winner, All About Eve, Best Film of 1950. It had a memorable screenplay by Joseph Mankiewicz, also an Oscar-winner. It is had a significant influence on many stories since, perhaps most notably, Stephen Sondheim’s variation, Applause.

This adaptation of the screenplay for the theatre was made by respected Belgian director, Ivo van Hove, who has been recently successful with dramas on the London stage, not only with performances but also with experimental stage design.

This is certainly the case with this version of All About Eve.

The dialogue is particularly strong, powerfully revelatory of the central characters. While the focus is on the older actress at the peak of her career, Margo Channing (Bette Davis most striking in the film), but apprehensive about ageing, there is almost equal attention given to the meek and mousy fan, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter in the film), who, with sweetness and light, diligent attention, never put-out, endears herself to the older actress, infiltrates her entourage, becomes indispensable.

This version enables the audience to see the considerable talent of Gillian Anderson, at home in film, on television, on the stage. She is absolutely arrogant but, at the same time, extraordinarily vulnerable. Initially, she is rather condescending to Eve, then becoming dependent on her, then becoming suspicious – and rightly so. Lily James has made quite a mark in film and television and is almost 100% persuasive in her initial scenes as Eve. Those who know the plot are waiting for Eve to manifest her true intentions, for her lies to be exposed, for her to step into Margo’s shoes. Which all happens, quite dramatically.

And, of course, Margo delivers the line that many of us know: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

The play retains the time period of the film, the late 1940s, with references to Hollywood and stars. The supporting characters include a skilful playwright and his enthusiastic wife who helps Eve but then becomes disillusioned with her. There is the vain director who goes off to Hollywood but who is genuinely in love with Margo. There is the anxious producer. There is Margo’s ageing acolyte, Birdie, who sees through Eve at once and who gets a lot of the sardonic lines.

Etched into moviegoers memories will be the performance by George Sanders of the critic, deadly critic, Addison DeWitt. Sanders also won an Oscar. His sardonic delivery of ultra-sardonic lines, his elegant sneer, are memorable. This time, Irish actor, Stanley Townsend, is directed with quite a different performance. The lines are there. But, Addison DeWitt is physically overbearing as well as psychologically dominating, it is more of a in-your-face performance.

As regards the stagecraft, the director uses a basic stage   which can be transformed into a reception area, a bedroom, a restaurant, props being brought in and carried away. However, what is most striking is the use of video cameras, the photographers seen on stage, capturing various characters and moments – but, their being presented on a large screen above the stage action. For instance, party guests outside the main room can be seen while the main action is in the bedroom. Or, as Margo and then Eve with their backs to the audiences, looking into the dressing-room mirrors, their faces can be seen on the screen above (with one effective sequence where Margo, concerned about ageing, has her face gradually transformed, older).

The basic theme of the ageing actress with her somewhat Iago-like admirer wanting to supplant her is always powerfully arresting.

Sharmill                                                                  Released  May 18th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.


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