Tag Archives: ivo van hove

All About Eve (Noel Coward Theatre)

“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Classic film fans will recall the incomparable Bette Davis hogging the screen as Margo Channing. It’s a hard act to follow and big shoes to fill.

Here, on stage, Margo is played by Gillian Anderson, much more nuanced and not half as frightening. She’s ageing, but she’s still beautiful. She’s tough, but weak too – I doubt Miss Davis would ever have consented to being displayed on a big screen with her head over a toilet pan full of vomit.

Into the world of Margo, ageing actress and icon, comes Eve Harrington, who has been in the audience at every performance. A mouse who adores her idol, and soon makes herself indispensable.

Lily James plays her, and the opening scenes, introduced by Stanley Townsend’s Addison de Witt (he’s far more frightening that the urbane George Sanders was on film), show her in close-up, smiling, duplicitous.

Gillisn Anderson and Lily James. Photo credit Jan Versweyveld.

Gillisn Anderson and Lily James. Photo credit Jan Versweyveld.

The big screen shows what goes on off the stage and in front of the mirror. Now and then, it is a good device, but too often it wastes a cavernous stage where things could and should be happening.

Monica Dolan plays Karen Richards, the faithful friend, the writer’s wife, the enabler of both Margo and Eve’s excesses. She becomes the main narrator, confidante, gossip for the audience. It’s a remarkable performance full of subtle characterisation.

This is and should be Margo’s show, though. Gillian Anderson is marvellous, whether displaying her barbed comments or hidden neuroses, and any actress of a certain age who allows her face to be scrutinised so deeply on a video projection deserves admiration.

She is a bitch – but so too is Miss Harrington. She schemes and plays her friends, but she pays for her ambition in a development which looks shaky in these days of feminist liberation.

Lily James. Photo credit Jan Versweyveld.

Lily James. Photo credit Jan Versweyveld.

Margo, Eve, Phoebe. This is a woman’s play, even with faithful companion Birdie (Sheila Reid, quietly marvellous) on the periphery. Yes, there’s Addison, and Bill – boyfriend to Margo and director – and Lloyd – writer and husband to Karen. They are defined by their women. Max the producer is even driven to the bicarb by them.

Ivo van Hove has done more involving work, notably Hedda Gabler and Network at the National. Here he overuses the video work and sometimes loses sight of the small moments: when they are there, and they work, this touches greatness, but it isn’t quite enough.


Network (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

The 1976 film version of this is one of my all-time favourites, a biting, pulsing, black satire on the power of the media. This production, directed by Ivo van Hove, was obviously appealing from the word go.

Howard Beale is a news anchor. He’s losing ratings, losing patience, and losing his mind. When hard-nosed executive programmer Diana Christensen sees the opportunity to exploit his slide into madness to build an ‘angry prophet’ show around him, corporate monster Frank Hackett sees a way to chisel to the top of the tree at the network, pushing old-timer Max Schumaker out along the way.

The set is interesting, dominated by a huge video screen and flanked on each side by glass-walled offices, and what has been termed the ‘Foodwork’ experience, where diners pay up to £250 a head for a five-course meal, a ringside seat, and a bit of show interaction.

Casting is dominated by Bryan Cranston (‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Trumbo’) as Beale, and he’s terrific, at turns vulnerable, bravura, and simply ‘as mad as hell’. You may remember a social media call for people to film themselves saying that iconic line – here those videos pepper the wall to show the national reach of the News Hour.

Michelle Dockery brings a certain emotional blankness to the part of Diana, whether she’s pitching an idea, taking a phonecall, or having rushed intercourse with Max, unable to remove her attention away from work.

As Max, Douglas Henshall feels too young and far from the jaded drunk a lifetime with television has made him, and Tunji Kasim was totally inadequate as Hackett (a role with needs an actor with range, as Robert Duvall demonstrated in the film).

Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay has been cleverly adapted by Lee Hall, although some of the dubious and immoral politics have been filtered out, and the attempts to make the Lyttelton audience studio accomplices fell flat.

Ultimately, this plot remains presient considering how politicians have come to manipulate the media for their own ends, just as network boss Jensen (Richard Cordery) does here for the corporate good.

I enjoyed the staging which allowed both the screen and the ‘reality’ to be watched (and I’d recommend a circle seat for this). I couldn’t get invested enough in the characters, though, which makes this production flashy, stunning, but superficial.


Hedda Gabler (National Theatre)

Ibsen’s difficult late play comes to the National Theatre in a new version by Patrick Marber, directed by Ivo van Hove.  In a modern production, set in one white box, minimally furnished, and airless except for one window (adding to the oppression of the story), it begins with two figures already on stage, one sitting motionless on a chair to the side, and one playing the piano, occasionally flinging themselves forward on to the keys in frustration or despair.

hedda-gabler-main_hero-spot-sfw

The former is the maid, Berte (Éva Magyar), who throughout the play is present, seeing everything along with the audience, but ignoring all just as she is largely ignored.  The latter is the titular Hedda Gabler (Ruth Wilson), newly married to academic Dr Tesman (Kyle Soller, here using his American accent rather than the one we have grown used to in his appearances as the doomed Francis Poldark on television) but bored and without purpose.

“Academics are no fun!” she whines, and even stapleguns flowers to the walls when she is particularly fed up.  Not for this new bride the glow of happiness – even the expensive house she now lives in is theirs purely through a quirk of fate, a caprice that made Tesman think she had “set her heart on it.”  She is trapped in circumstances she is powerless to change, in a cage from which she can not break free.

For Tesman’s part he can’t believe his luck, not just that the General’s daughter has chosen him, but that he has “special access” to her body.  This makes him just as unsympathetic a character as their supposed friend, Brack (Rafe Spall) who is a smooth but repellent sexual predator who, in the final few scenes of the play, defiles and abuses Hedda in a most appalling and shocking way, helped by an inspired use of prop design to provide the gore often missing from this play.

heddagabler

Hedda Gabler is a proud woman, but not in any way a nice one.  She torments her school friend, Mrs Elsted (Sinéad Matthews) and ruins her life, under the cloak of supposed kindness.  She goads the weak-willed career rival of her husband’s, Lovborg, her former lover, into desolation and destruction while fantasizing of the beauty of his “wearing vine leaves in his hair”.  She lies, cheats, manipulates, and destroys.  She is a viper in her words, too, hurting the kindly but interfering Tesman aunt (Kate Duchêne), and pushing away her devoted husband.

This production may rely too much on musical interludes (‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell appears several times, and ‘Hallelujah’ the Leonard Cohen song, as rendered by Jeff Buckley – but clumsily edited – cuts into one scene), but its sparseness and the decision to stage much of the action on the fringes of the stage worked well for me, as it forces the eye to follow the characters as they separate or interact.  Entrances and exits are blurred, so we end up unsure as to the proportions of the room(s) we are viewing.  A video entry phone is the only concession to technology.

Marber’s adaptation may bring more laughs to the fore than the piece requires, but there is no denying the cumulative power of script, direction, and performance.  Wilson, Soller, Spall and Matthews are all excellent, with only Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg missing that final note of mental disintegration that his fate would seemingly require.   Hedda’s final act may shock some, “People do not do such things”, but at least the events of this production are delivered in such a way that she clearly does not have a choice if she is not to spend her days in a living hell.

Image credit: Jan Versweyveld.


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