Q: What is the connection between the Amur leopard, the Leatherback sea turtle and the theatrical interval?
A: They are all increasingly endangered species
I don’t know whether it’s the particular nature of the productions I’ve visited recently but the interval seems to be not long for this world. Indeed of my first twelve outings this year only four have featured said event. Even the production I was involved with managed to do without a loo break/glass of wine/”what do you think of it so far?” chat. Admittedly I’ve been to a number of shortish pieces where it would have been plain silly to bring proceedings to a halt and others have benefitted from not having the loss of momentum that invariably occurs when a break is suddenly taken. And, after all, it’s not that unusual to sit through a three hour epic film without a pause.
I’d always assumed theatre owners/managers quite liked intervals if only because they provide a key point at which bar takings can be boosted and merchandise sold. I wonder how performers feel when they play something straight through. Do they become weary at the thought of not getting a break or are they actually pleased to maintain the momentum and get things done before the pub starts shutting up for the night? Whatever the case, there does seem to be a distinct trend towards interval-less shows even in the commercial West End. My latest theatre outing to All About Eve (clocking in at 125 minutes) at the Noel Coward Theatre is a case in point. Here’s my review of one of early 2019’s most anticipated productions:
“Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night!” Possibly one of the most famous lines in cinema and one that gets straight to the heart of my feelings about All About Eve as adapted and directed by Ivo van Hove. Far from “a bumpy night” if anything it came across as flat, pedestrian and even, at times, stilted when it should have had the power to shake up the audience with biting satire, crackling dialogue and mesmeric performances. As conceived by van Hove it was a draining affair which turned into an evening when an obviously highly gifted director displayed a box of cinematic tricks rather than getting to the heart of the central narrative.
All About Eve is the classic story of the understudy usurping the star turn and the wiles and machinations of the Broadway mafia. It concerns itself with the fickleness of celebrity, our sense of self-worth and the pain of ageing. In that sense it could not fail to be interesting and I should acknowledge there were some highly charged moments when the whole thing seemed about to catch fire. Alas, these were never sustained and the best efforts of some very good performers were undercut by many of the director’s choices.
Gillian Anderson as the star turn Margo wisely eschewed going for a carbon copy of Bette Davis but did not seem to have been given support in finding a viable alternative. Where Davis was whip smart, acerbic and totally in control of the material, Anderson seemed to be drifting through the part exuding a languid melancholy that, while affecting was not effective. At times she came across as bored and disinterested and the delivery of some of the classic lines seemed to emerge from a Mogadon-induced state. That said she played the underlying emotional wreck convincingly and her camera close ups contained no hint of her character’s vanity.
Lily James as the titular Eve also failed to ignite proceedings. Starting as gauche (or was that an act?) the character is revealed as being as manipulative as anyone else. James demonstrated the different facets of the character but therein I think lay the problem; it was a demonstration rather than a truly heartfelt performance which lacked a central core.
The third potentially killer role is that of theatre critic and starmaker Addison deWitt (the clue is in the name). As played by Stanley Townsend the character came across as urbane and manipulative but somewhat to excess; to the point where he might as well have had cloven hooves and a forked tail. A late scene between him and James fizzed with theatrical energy although I felt it was obviously played up so as to contain a trendy #MeToo vibe.
If there was a star turn I felt it was Monica Dolan as Margo’s best friend Karen Richards. Here was an actress with some fire and grit making a memorable character out of a part not particularly dazzlingly conceived. Her pain at being left by her playwright husband (Rhashan Stone) was superbly done and in a key scene with Anderson when she realises how she has contributed to the start of her friend’s downfall she was deeply moving. Interestingly this scene was, for once, simply and plainly staged and was much the better for it. However, of the two actresses it was Dolan who commanded my attention … and I can’t help thinking it should have been the other way round.
Again, this was an imbalance which should have been addressed by the director. But, unfortunately, he was too busy showing us the tricks that can be pulled with nifty camerawork rather than concentrating on the central action. Indeed some of the most important moments of the plot were not even played on stage. To give one instance, when Eve attempts to blackmail Karen we watched a live video stream of the two actresses in a closed box set of a bathroom. This artificially constructed distance between actresses and audience undermined the emotional impact of the scene. And one of the key strengths about watching a stage production is that the audience can switch their gaze between characters as they will – not have choices foisted upon them. It was frustrating not to be able to see reactions on both characters’ faces and a key moment was therefore lost to directorial trickery.
Other aspects of the production also grated. The constant “thrum” of the underscored soundscape (Tom Gibbons/P.J. Harvey) may have been intended to induce a sense of menace. However, I found it simply annoyingly distracting. It even made some of the dialogue difficult to hear, this despite the fact that the performers were miked (don’t get me started!) The set and lighting by Jan Versweyveld were technically very good but lent the whole thing a clinical feel which enforced a sense of distance between stage and audience. Given the preponderance of the colour red the whole thing seemed a strangely anaemic affair.
Ivo van Hove is often referred to as an auteur which I had always understood was a term connected with film and herein lays the central problem; if you want to major in cinema, then why not major in cinema? Films of plays are often criticised as too “stagey”; my main criticism here is of a play being too “filmy”. Clever though his techniques undoubtedly are (and the moment where Anderson’s reflected face crumbles into old age is a real coup d’theatre) this drama lacked heart, power, pace and telling characterisation. I’m afraid this comes down to the director’s influence. This was supposed to be All About Eve – it ended up as being All About Ivo.*
All this and no interval meaning bodily as well as mental fatigue had well and truly set in by the end. I don’t know but perhaps in hindsight the lack of interval in this case was a wise choice. I, for one, might have been sorely tempted to exit stage right had the opportunity arisen.