Stephen Sondheim has a special category that he calls “why?” musicals. What’s the point, he says, of musicalising something that shows little, if any benefit, from the process? Why bother?
The same could be asked about adapting a celebrated film for the stage, as in the case of Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s spurious, flat-footed, anorexic transfer of All About Eve, the most potent film about the theatre ever made.
Written and directed in 1950 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this flawless masterpiece takes a sardonic look at celebrity and stardom in general and Broadway of the period in particular. It is witty, acerbic, occasionally satirical and recreates a beguiling world in which illusion is entwined with reality – a world unfamiliar to mere mortals. With a definitive cast headed by the incomparable Bette Davis, the material cannot be improved upon.
Director and adapter van Hove (considered by many the auteur of the decade), using much of Mankiewicz’s original screenplay, brings nothing new to it except some technical video wizardry in which Margo Channing, the central character, is seen to age in giant close-up projections through a process of morphing that was first used, albeit not as seamlessly, in the 1941 film Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde. And just as TV monitors dominate van Hove’s stage version of Network (currently a hit on Broadway), live video sequences supply a smidgen of artificial respiration to what little life there is left in this version. At the same time, it’s a cruel reminder of how inferior these images are to Mankiewicz’s original.
For anyone who has never seen the film, All About Eve is the story of a seemingly naive would-be actress called Eve Harrington who manages to insinuate herself into the well-established lives of Margo Channing, a famous Broadway diva of a certain age, her long-standing lover-cum-director Bill Sampson, a successful playwright called Lloyd Richards, his wife Karen, and powerful Broadway theatre critic and columnist Addison de Witt. Eve’s manipulative presence upsets – both personally and professionally – the high-octane group she gate-crashes, and in the process she becomes Margo’s understudy before usurping her status as the new queen of Broadway.
Comparisons, they say, are odious – but on occasions such as this, they’re inevitable. On every level, van Hove’s staging falls short. As Margo Channing, Gillian Anderson (the coldest, least vulnerable Blanche du Bois I have ever seen) lacks the presence and the calculated disdain Davis brought to the role. She provides no threat or tension to the great party scene, which makes nonsense of the film’s most famous line, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
Lily James’ Eve lacks the star potential Anne Baxter had. Stanley Townsend is devoid of the caustic suavity with which George Sanders endowed Addison de Witt. And that fine actress Sheila Reid is all but invisible as Margo’s cynical, take-no-prisoners dresser Birdie, so memorably played by Thelma Ritter, who received a Best Supporting Oscar nomination. Invisible too is Jesse Mei Lei as an aspiring young actress played so unforgettably by Marilyn Monroe.
Only Monica Dolan as Margo’s best friend Karen justifies comparison with Celeste Holm, while Julian Ovenden does the best he can in the thankless role of Margo’s lover Bill Sampson.
As Karen’s playwright husband, van Hove has cast black actor Rhasan Stone. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but there is no chemistry between them, and in this particular context, they make a very odd couple indeed. Also, given that the text is in no way updated to the present, the idea of a black playwright in 1950 writing popular bourgeois Broadway hits is absurd.
The final nail in the coffin of this moribund show is Jan Versweyveld's cluttered, unattractive set, whose conventional box-like frame, dominated by a central makeup mirror, rises to reveal a multiplicity of smaller sets around which video cameramen are seen shooting scenes that then appear on giant-sized screens. Suffering most from this typical van Hove device is the aforementioned party scene, here totally devoid of atmosphere or friction and further handicapped by PJ Harvey’s lugubrious song "The Sandman" – an inadequate substitute for Liszt’s "Liebestraum," and, incidentally, very poorly rendered by Anderson.
A bumpy night? You betcha.