Theatre in London

In the thick of it

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 08.03.2019

Throughout his career Ivo van Hove, the brilliant Belgian director, has reinvented the meaning of texts. He also makes theatre for people raised on film and television. So, not surprisingly perhaps, he has just adapted another movie classic for the stage. All about Eve (1950) is a Joseph L Mankiewicz film about stardom and ageing.

As with all van Hove’s staged screenplays, which mix live action and film, the visual language is at least as important as the text itself, and this time a soundtrack written by PJ Harvey adds a particularly powerful melancholy note. Gillian Anderson appears as Margo Channing, a middle-aged actress who is surrounded by a solid fanbase, yet increasingly comes to resent the thirtysomething parts written for her by the most fêted playwright on Broadway. She feels that she is running out of time and seems to spend most of her days staring at her fading looks in her dressing-room mirror. At one point a huge back projection of a close-up of her face literally has her age within seconds – a moment of particular intensity given to us in true van Hove fashion!

The crisis accelerates once Eve Harrington (Lily James), a seemingly naïve admirer of Margo’s, morphs into a manipulative, ruthless rival prepared to fight her way up the ladder of theatrical fame, no matter what it takes. Only when the melodramatic past Eve has invented for herself is revealed to be a net of lies do matters stall as she might be outdone by the more experienced Addison DeWitt (Stanley Townsend), an acid-tongued critic who adores backstabbing and feeds on stars with great relish. Of course, the next generation waiting in the wings has always been with us, not just in showbiz, but in all walks of life. Our celebrity-obsessed age, in which appearance is everything and you may briefly be famous for being famous, has merely accelerated the process. So, remember, come what may, there will always be someone biding their time behind you!

This is not such a far cry from Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, a play about Trump’s America, which Rupert Goold directs. It is 2017. The play is set in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, where a group of friends gather for a country weekend away from their busy New York lives and for relentless soul searching about what has happened in politics. A second strand is about the previous owners, a white farmer and his adopted black son (an excellent Fisayo Akinade). And then, Trump himself (thank you, Elliot Cowan) appears – a rather surreal creature in scarlet swimming trunks and with his body covered in gold paint. The perfect contrast to the fierce religious language that pops up elsewhere. Yes, Washburn is trying to cram a lot of different atmospheres in; she has her play dip in and out of liberal minds and raise uneasy questions. Ultimately, it is up to the audience to pull the various plotlines together. And then, as if by magic, what might at first feel like a hopeless sprawl of a text becomes a panoramic journey across today’s America. A road trip with a difference! Refreshing and provocative; both personal and political. Grim, yet poking fun at everyone.

In a completely different register there is Home, I’m Darling’ a new play about feminism and nostalgia for the 1950s. Laura Wade has written a sharp comedy about a marriage based on a complete fantasy. Living as a 1950s couple in a 21st-century world soon turns out to be an expensive game that you are bound to lose, a dream that invariably becomes a nightmare. Katherine Parkinson is a brilliant Judy, a domestic goddess who rebels against her feminist mother but ends up in a mess of her own. Carefully patterned and as brightly coloured as the fancy cocktails she serves. Yes, the choice still is between the power suit and the frilly apron, but neither of them will transport you to paradise on earth.

All About Eve, Noël Coward Theatre, WC2, to May 11; Shipwreck, Almeida Theatre, N1, to March 30; Home, I’m Darling, Duke of York’s Theatre, WC2, to April 13

Janine Goedert
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