One of the world’s hottest theatre directors, an adored cinematic classic and a stellar pair of leading ladies – next to Cate Blanchett at the National, this was early 2019’s most sought-after ticket. And once again, the show itself fails to justify the hype. Not that Ivo van Hove’s adaptation and production of the Joseph L Mankiewicz film, starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James, is without its appeal. But it is a glossy, shallow, brittle kind of showbiz fable, stylish but chilly, and van Hove fails to grapple with awkward disjuncture between the film’s period setting and our 21st century perspective.
Anderson enthusiasts certainly get their chance to feast their eyes upon their idol: Van Hove’s staging, designed as usual by the Belgian theatre-maker’s partner and regular collaborator Jan Versweyweld, features enormous screens on which every flicker of her performance is recorded, even when she is physically out of the audience’s vision. Ironically, this sometimes means that she achieves the seemingly impossible feat of upstaging herself. Although perhaps that’s apt, since Anderson is playing the prima donna of all prima donnas – Margo Channing, supernova of the theatre, a role immortalised in Mankiewicz’s film by the incomparable Bette Davis. Her nemesis is James as the titular Eve, the scheming superfan who moves in posing as a loyal factotum and discreetly begins to hijack Margo’s career and relationships.
Van Hove and Versweyweld teasingly refuse to locate the drama in any particular period. The costumes, by An d’Huys, are modern with period flourishes: the women in fluid silk dresses, the men in sharp suits with t-shirts. The battery of onstage technology also lends a 21st-century sheen, yet the narrative still pivots on the conventions of the past (the late-night, long-distance phone call that Eve mischievously places on an unwitting Margo’s behalf, for example – there are no cell phones in this strange, timeless hinterland). There’s also a suggested parallel between Margo’s backstage world with the 60s milieu of Andy Warhol’s Factory, complete with silver helium balloons – and though a programme note rather strenuously attempts to explain why this is so, it’s not an analogy I found remotely convincing. Most problematic, though, are the sexual politics. A key scene in the film sees Margo explain to her best friend Karen, the wife of a successful young playwright (beadily played here by Monica Dolan), that all her success, talent and acclaim is worth nothing without the love of a man. It’s a jarringly outdated attitude that rings deafeningly false once you remove it from its 50s context. So what are we to make of it here? Van Hove never makes it clear.
In fact, his focus seems to be firmly on the supposed horrors, for women, of ageing, the suggestion that the glorious Margo is past her sell-by date at age 50 (10 years older than Davis’ onscreen carnation – another bewildering inconsistency). We all know that sexism is still rampant in the entertainment industry, as it is in most spheres of life. But that doesn’t seem to be the target in a staging that equips its central character with nothing less than a neurotic horror of her own body, and then dwells upon it in extreme close-up, with almost vampiric glee. In one technically dazzling sequence, Anderson’s Margo gazes into her light-bulb-framed mirror and watches her beautiful, sculptural face age, folds and wrinkles proliferating, hair greying and thinning, bright-eyed grace declining into a mask of defeat and despair. During the party scene that features the famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” she’s dressed in red lipstick and a wig, which she rips off, stumbling and helplessly drunk. A camera even follows her into an offstage bathroom where she collapses, before vomiting with lurid verisimilitude into a toilet bowl. It’s as if van Hove is determined to strip her of all dignity. Without departing much from Davis’ familiar inflexions, Anderson does deliver Margo’s acid wit and elegance, her longing and generosity. But she is dwarfed by the machinery around her, and its rapacious obsession with surfaces and appearance in general, and hers in particular.
James has the right flinty poise as Eve. Dolan gives Karen a weary wisdom. And the men – her husband Lloyd, and Margo’s love interest and director Bill – are suavely adequate. Sheila Reid as Birdie, Margo’s devoted, old vaudevillian dresser, and Stanley Townsend as the toxic critic Addison DeWitt, both deliver lively, entertaining turns, but again there’s little deviation from the onscreen blueprints. And the music, by PJ Harvey, is doomy without contributing much additional atmospheric dimension. Overall, you’re left wondering what this stage adaptation adds to its celluloid source, other than a blurring of its edges and a preoccupation with women’s faces and bodies. It’s a curious creation, and it’s certainly striking to look at. But in the end it’s supremely pointless.