This week I saw All About Eve now showing at the Noel Coward Theatre, London. The live performance is also showing at regional cinemas, on screen.
We’re very fortunate in the UK in that live theatre is so prolific, whether a top London show, a regional theatre, or a local am-dram. When I read English Literature at Reading University I went to the theatre every week, sometimes twice a week. I wasn’t so sure, however, about watching a live performance filmed for the cinema. How immediate would the experience be? Where would the atmosphere come from? Would I miss the little touches that make up a live performance; the tuning of instruments in the orchestra pit, the possibility of actors emerging on cue from amongst the audience, something Chichester Festival Theatre, laid out in the round, does well.
It’s true that some of that atmosphere is missing from watching live theatre filmed for the big screen. There are advantages, however. For one thing, you have a great view all the way through as the multiple cameras.
In this new production of All About Eve, certain ‘off-stage’ scenes are filmed and shown on a large overhead screen. Bear with me here, as it’s tricky to describe. In the party scene, for example, Margo Channing (played with a deft touch by Gillian Anderson) and lover Gary Merrill (played by Julian Ovenden) play out a scene centre front stage while, in the background, the rest of the ‘party’ taking place in the kitchen is filmed (the camera operator being visible to the audience) and displayed overhead.
It’s a novel experience, whereby the audience is watching a film within a film of a live performance, a mise-en-scène created by digital technology. It adds a nice frisson of energy and doesn’t detract from the lead performers in any way, but instead provides additional atmosphere and a simultaneous reveal of the reactions of the rest of the cast.
The backstage prop area is fully visible too, although once the furniture has been rearranged for a new scene, discreet screens slide back into place once again. I love the anticipation of the scuffle and shuffle involved in setting up a new scene.
Bang up to date
Those Mankiewicz brothers certainly knew a thing or two about the theatre and film industry, and human nature. The All About Eve script deals with questions and dilemmas that are still true today.
Although the storyline seems simple, albeit delightfully hectic, it is darkly complex. The original screenplay was based on a magazine story, Mary Orr’s 1946 Cosmopolitan tale The Wisdom of Eve, about an actress, Eve Harrington, who claws her way up, treading firmly over her several new friends to reach the starry top. Mankiewicz saw this as a parable for America and the self made man, or woman in this case. This reasonates today as social media offers the opportunity for everyone to be a ‘star’ and can also generate a ruthless nature.
Theatre critic, Addison De Witt (played in the film by George Sanders and here by Irish actor, Stanley Townsend), is just as ruthless as Eve. De Witt digs into her past and blackmails Eve with the truth about her past. There’s more than an echo of the Weinstein scandal here. Also, in the party scene, where De Witt is accompanied by the beautiful, young actress Miss Casswell (no relation!) (played in the film by Marilyn Monroe and here by Jessie Mei Li). Claudia Casswell could be another Eve but lacks the killer instinct.
Suffice to say that Gillian Anderson is superb, very strong in the role of the ageing star, especially as she has big shoes to fill – those of the late, great Bette Davis who played Margo in the film. Anderson doesn’t disappoint, delivering the iconic line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” with perfect tone and timing.
I wonder whether the storyline resonated with Gillian Anderson as she now plays the ageing actress to Lily James, up and coming young actress? Anderson is fabulous and her ‘drunk’ scene in particular, raging against the injustice, full of self pity and jealousy, is spectacular. This ‘Black Sawn’ role is Lily James’ best to date and I hope she is offered more complex characters to play.
All About Eve has a strong female cast and it’s impossible to finish without giving a mention to Scottish actress, Sheila Reid, who plays Birdie, Margo’s long standing dresser. #In the film Birdie is played by the unforgettable Celeste Holm (High Society and many others). Birdie represents the Greek chorus or the Shakespearean fool,and the first to recognise Eve’s darker intent.
The film’s narrator was De Witt, in the play it is Margo’s long standing friend and fellow victim of Eve’s ruthless conniving, Karen Richards played by Bafta award-winner, Monica Dolan, whose energy and delivery moves the play along at a satisfying, frisky pace.
All About Eve by Joseph L Mankiewicz and directed by Ivan van Hove stars Gillian Anderson and Lily James at the Noel Coward Theatre and runs until 11 May. www.noelcowardtheatre.co.uk