It makes sense that Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning masterpiece ‘All About Eve’ (1950) should find life on the stage. For one thing, it’s a tale of the theatre itself, of its romance and its backstage melodramas. Secondly, the film was based on the short story ‘The Wisdom of Eve’ by Mary Orr, which was adapted for the stage before it became the basis for the film. And finally, Mankiewicz’s screenplay is one of the most spectacular and delicious pieces of writing ever conceived for screen or stage, an erudite and vicious symphony of venom and desperation. Earlier this year, acclaimed director Ivo Van Hove transported Mankiewicz’s script to the stage in London with the staggering casting of Gilliam Anderson and Lily James in the lead roles. The idea of such an incredible match of director, cast and material happening so far away was almost unbearable, so thank goodness for Nation Theatre Live, whose filming of the stage production brings it to cinema screens here in Australia.
The premise of ‘All About Eve’ is mythical - when stage star Margot Channing (Anderson, TV's ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Hannibal’) meets young fan Eve Harrington (James, ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’, ‘Baby Driver’), she takes her on as her assistant. Very quickly, she begins to suspect that Eve is up to something far more sinister, with eyes on Margot’s career, her friends and even her lover. The setup is delicious, and the manner in which Mankiewicz mines into fan culture, the elitism of the theatre and the brutal war women are forced to fight against age, expectation and each other is still some of the sharpest writing on these subjects. In his adaptation, van Hove retains almost the entirety of Mankiewicz’s screenplay, including its structure and narration from Margot’s best friend Karen Richards (Monica Dolan). It’s a wise decision in many respects, as Mankiewicz’s writing is one of the strongest aspects of the film and consequently this production, but it does offer challenges in staging that van Hove never quite overcomes.
For the production, the story is mostly re-purposed to Margot’s living spaces, while the backstage of the Noel Coward Theatre is left visible. As he did in his stage adaptation of ‘Obsession’, van Hove uses a live feed for many moments of the production, but unlike the clunky way it was used in ‘Obsession’, it mostly adds a sense of cruel intimacy to the production, as well as expanding the narrative into other physical spaces. Where this device works best is where the dominating video image works as contrast or commentary to the action on stage, especially in cracking open the inner workings of Margot and Eve. It’s a clever device used in a clever manner, but thankfully not in too distracting a one (expect for the unfortunate moments where sound and visual are slightly out of sync). Where the production falters is in its rhythm, with van Hove allowing a touch too much space for the dialogue to breathe. The text maintains the 1950s speed and patter, but that isn’t reflected in the performances or the rhythm of the production itself, and this along with PJ Harvey’s unusual score end up robbing the production of tension when it most needs it. They also never quite make the direct address or narration work in a satisfying manner, opting for solutions that further disturb the rhythm.
The triumph of this production is the manner in which it flays the skin of Mankiewicz’s screenplay to reveal something even darker and more unsettling. It still celebrates the world of the theatre, but the trickle of contempt for it in the film becomes a river, revealing it as a nightmarish hall of mirrors where ambition and desperation turn those trapped in it into monsters. There’s a palpable sense of building dread and inevitability to this production, as Margot’s life hurtles towards disaster at Eve’s hand before she’s able to grab a hold and pull herself out. It also highlights what a man’s world theatre is, how women are left at the mercy of the men who decide their fate artistically, emotionally and financially. Margot has held power because of her talent and beauty, but as a woman in her 50s she starts to see that power slipping away, especially when the younger Eve appears to act as a new source of inspiration for her director/lover Max Fabian (Ian Drysdale) and writer Lloyd Richards (Rhashan Stone). Her only option initially is defence, and here van Hove explores how this male-influenced paranoia then turns these women against one another, with Karen pulled between her devotion to Margot and the manipulations of Eve. As the production thunders towards its climax, and the power and narrative lean towards and then starts to crush Eve, it plunges into darkness with a breathtaking finale where the narrative and thematic threads - along with the visual and aural language of the production - all converge with stomach-dropping emotional violence.
The triumph of this production is the manner in which it flays the skin of Mankiewicz’s screenplay to reveal something even darker and unsettling.
In the hands of the right actors, the words of ‘All About Eve’ can be a weapon, and that is very much the case with Anderson and James. Both leave the iconic film performances behind, but inherently understand the careful melodrama necessary to make it all work. Anderson is ravishing as Margot, easily capturing her formidable star quality whilst pushing against the cracks in her armour that betray her fear of being discarded and forgotten. Nothing about her voice or physicality is wasted, and Anderson bites into Margot’s vicious sense of humour with relish without losing her warmth. The more startling performance though is from James, who delves deep into Eve’s complex psychology. Her performance is openly emotional and physically torturous in the most thrilling way, especially when her unusual choices lead her to remarkable work in the final act. Her Eve is the ever-aware imposter, proficient in her deception but quick to violent defence when necessary. There’s something sociopathic about her Eve, but she supports it with a palpable sense of why, of the desperation to matter and to belong and to conquer that drives her towards the terrible things she does. As with Emma Stone's portrayal of Abagail in ‘The Favourite’, she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, but achieving her goal does not bring her the peace she hopes for, and we’re hit with her crushing disappointment when she reaches what she assumes to be the top of the mountain, only to find herself trapped in yet another cage. It’s absolutely thrilling to watch, and her moment of realisation is easily the greatest triumph of this production.
As for the broadcast itself, this presentation from NT Live suffers from similar problems as others capturing mixed-media productions. It never finds a way to properly present the use of live feed in a way that feels satisfying, and the technical limitations of the NT Live format occasionally become a distraction. That said, as with all these presentations, we’re lucky to be able to see this production in any capacity.
Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of ‘All About Eve’ isn’t perfect, but it’s a deeply fascinating and unsettling piece of work, celebrating Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s writing and characters while exposing a deeper darkness at its core. The acerbic wit falls away to an emotional violence that haunts you long after, especially with such powerhouse performances from Gillian Anderson and Lily James. This is a fascinating production of a masterwork, and one that shouldn’t be missed.