In two different plays, adapted from two different films, and by two different directors (one Belgian and one French), two women—“of a certain age,” someone, more likely than not a man, might write colloquially, garden variety sexism dotting the fibrous page—look into the mirror and see their unsavory fates, and the loss of what was once so promising, even if under a particular paradigm. They’re two actresses playing actresses in play adaptations of films about plays, and theatre, and performance, and all of that baggage. One actress, Margo Channing (Gillian Anderson), reacts to her growing obsolescence with venomous wit, peppered in with drunken desperation. The other, Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) responds with a sort of actorly paralysis, like the yips, and also with sloshed conduct. And as two live feeds amplify and project the frustration and neuroses these women are experiencing, men loom in the background, flattening it all for the sake of their own thrill.
It’s fairly interesting that, at least in New York, that the international broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of All About Eve, directed and adapted by Ivo van Hove, and the United States premiere of the stage adaptation of Opening Night, directed and adapted by Cyril Teste, should “run” in such close proximity to one another, mere weeks apart. They’re effectively very similar texts, with equally iconoclastic leading roles for women, and presented in not dissimilar, but extremely disheartening ways. It could be argued that the films from which these plays are adapted are in dialogue with one another, and, in a way, so are the adaptations themselves, though I would really designate it as a pompous shouting match that grates on the ear than a conversation.
All About Eve, from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ribald rumination on industry and power, gives us peaks into the wings and the backstage of Margo’s charmed, but surely disappearing life as a stage icon, those privileges gradually being leeched by enthusiastic fan Eve Harrington (Lily James). The burgundy set spells blood, the amenities that detail Margo’s life, but perhaps serve as the goal for Eve; occasionally the borders of the room open up to reveal the bones of the theatre, grand pictures of Margo being steadily replaced by portraits of Eve. As is van Hove’s wont, All About Eve offers a hybrid theatre/cinema experience, a live-feed of video frequently enough documenting what’s on stage and what can’t be seen on stage. Playing the the liminalities of theatre and film and what’s in between should be fun, particularly with a text that is especially suited for such explorations, but it’s rather impressive how what was once novel to me a year ago at van Hove’s adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s The Damned can now ring as hollow in a work that’s ostensibly better designed for the approach.
But for a gay director, his All About Eve is strangely heterosexual; Anderson does what feels like an impression of someone trying not to do an impression of Bette Davis, her voice all gruff in a manner that makes it hard to read sadness, determination, and ambivalence; Eve’s fanaticism is placeless in time, neither subdued enough to be from the 1950s nor sycophantic enough to be in the now; and Stanley Townsend’s Addison DeWitt is reconceived as a very heterosexual, Weinsteinian monster, seemingly overlooking the ways in which gay men, too, can be abusers and manipulators of women. It’s an adaptation that is dull and long and shockingly uninterested in the various layers of performance that the story, and the way it is being framed for the production, can provide; what are the lives we, and the lives, women live on-screen and off, and how is that different in stage matters? How has an industry whose rhetoric about beauty is, for lip service purposes, nominally changing, if only for another way of developing a source of cultural capital? Where does Eve fit into this?
So much of the adaptation feels both overwrought and obvious in its straightforwardness, as well as siphoned of its humor. This is bad Ivo van Hove, where inspiration has been taken out to pasture as if the direction has been phoned in. Its worst, most sophomoric move is having Anderson stare into her makeup mirror, while a camera inside provides a live feed to a giant screen; we see her face, glowing with sweat after a show, cheekbones sharp, and the expression of emptiness yearning to be filled is all we need. But van Hove, for some ungodly reason, uses computer graphics to age her face in real-time, so she sees her skin sag and wrinkle, her hair gray, her wrinkles splay across the terrain, and her career rot away. But, like, duh. Anderson is a more than capable enough performer to convey that just in the look, and just in the grasping at the skin with her taut fingers. Computer aging feels condescending to the performer, the text, and, ultimately, the audience.
That the play, even outside of the film’s context, is about women negotiating their own sense of agency and power in an industry that feasts on youth, one that is at its core ruled by patriarchy, is obvious. It’s getting into the heads of these women that matters, especially with how they regard their own internalized misogyny. But those aspects are flattened out, over-explained by direction, in spite of the play’s script essentially being a word for word adaptation of Mankiewicz’s screenplay. In the film, you get the feeling, and rush, that, even within the confines of the studio system, Davis, et al., are wrenching the film from the director, combatting, with their performances, de facto male authorship. Van Hove, though, appears the third face of Eve, usurping all the women as he goes.
The notion of challenging and combatting male authorship, in the face of misogyny both on a personal and more broadly political valence, is at the core of the film Opening Night, directed by John Cassavetes and starring Gena Rowlands. The terms, here, are applied insofar as “officiality”, what’s listed on IMDb; it’s essential, and not unknown, that theirs was an intensely collaborative relationship, an alchemic push and pull of creativity and boundary-breaking. Rowlands has just as much authorship on her work with Cassavetes as he does. Opening Night is a curious reflection of the difficulties creativity and what collaboration might entail; or, rather, what fighting for authorship and power look like in a creative context, in the same industry, no less.
But Opening Night is also a possession film, of sorts. It’s not only the ghost of a young fan killed before Myrtle Gordon’s eyes that inhabits the actress’s psyche and body, not only what that fan’s life might have been or was, but also the poisonous understanding that those with power and control in the world can rob a woman of worth and meaning. That gross dialectical abuse is what renders Myrtle paralyzed, unable to perform in a play where she’s slapped around and abused by her husband and must, in an essentialist manner, confront the emptiness of her life because of her age and lack of a traditional family. Opening Night a possession film.
And that it is a possession film is why I thought French acting royalty Isabelle Adjani would be perfect for the role of Myrtle in Cyril Teste’s adaptation. This play, too, is a hybrid theatre/cinema experience; he erroneously believes himself to be the pioneer of this approach, and while I cannot find exactly who started or what production launched the method, I can say that van Hove used his video tricks for his own adaptation of Opening Night in 2008. Here’s another work that is, on the page, a natural choice for this kind of theatre. And a work that, again, woefully does not deliver.
Its premise is actually not uninteresting; the play that the director (Ben Gazzara in the film, Morgan Lloyd Sicard in the play), now sporting insufferable hipster black skinny jeans and twee beanie, is not, as in the film, Second Woman, or at least not only Second Woman. The performance, almost entirely in French, begins with the supertitles giving vague descriptions of the action to get across the point that, Oh!, the play Manny is directing is the play you’re seeing tonight. He’s directing Opening Night; how unconventional! He’s directing Isabelle Adjani playing Isabella Adjani playing Gena Rowlands playing Myrtle Gordon playing her character in Second Woman. What a fun little Russian nesting doll of a set-up.
Only, the degree to which Teste, and Adjani, are committed to exploring and interrogating those many layers of artifice and authenticity, on stage and on screen, is basically nonexistent. Affect in performance across the board, language barrier notwithstanding, isn’t nuanced enough to convey the ambiguities of apparatus nor hard and discernible enough to delineate those layers. It’s interminable, with the mostly lazy blocking (that apparently changes every night) and unimaginative cinema-tizing, like bad, witless Ivo van Hove, but for dumbasses.
Adjani is bloodless as herself, if one reads it as a self-reflexive examination on stardom, and hollow as Myrtle, is one takes it fairly straightforwardly, and never invests in the performance enough to begin to tease out the tricky skins of the premise. It’s not the language thing either; when Isabelle Hupper starred in The Mother earlier this year at Atlantic Theater Company, her presence was magnetic and her performance was generous and giving, able to elevate the text. Adjani’s performance flatlines. Her descent into madness (or ascent into claiming the text and everything around it) isn’t marked by much; there’s nothing radiating from her body, and what might be presented as explosive and ungovernable movement and action is instead played as clichéd “contemplative” monologuing, slight words that aren’t sharp enough to cut to the bone or do the heavy work of confronting the uncomfortable truths about the text and performer. But as she approaches something resembling an interesting action or decision, the direction undermines her, over explicating or reorienting the play to not be about her, but to be about the director.
It’s kind of offensive to me that a story that is inherently about the question of authorship as gendered and the reckoning with misogyny, internal and external, is repurposed to be a shallow, obvious, reductive play about a woman worrying about her age, and a director who puppeteers her every emotion and action. The roving camera, its operator also looking like he walked out of a bar in Williamsburg, spends the bulk of its time, not on Adjani, whose stunning visage still strikes a chore, even when she’s cowering in big black sunglasses, but on Sicard, who is pretty in basic fuckboi kind of way. The set, which serves as the set for the play within the play and Myrtle’s apartment, contains a large white screen where the video feed appears; Sicard’s face towers over Adjani, overexplaining that he, and his control, are in her mind, the poison that possesses her. She exists under his gaze. Only, she does little to fight back, and the production is tilted in his favor.
Later, she stares into the mirror in the ailingly used wings, her performance suffering, supposedly, and she sees the young woman who was killed staring back at her angelically, her voice filling the theater with “her” hopes and desires. Adjani’s breakdown continues. No shit, Sherlock. As the play literalizes, and reframes, its characters and their preoccupations, it wrenches the tension of creation and creativity, under the axe of systematic oppression, and dulls it, makes it one dimensional. Do we need to hear narration of emotions that can be conveyed by the actor? And by a man? Do they need to give Nancy, the dead girl, a face, especially if the way she haunts is more metaphorical and ideological? If testing the boundaries of theater, performance, video, etc. is so important, why is so little of it actually charged with spontaneity and energy? Why is it so European in its manneredness, something that is essentially antithetical to the text?
When the camera does fall on Adjani, it has a Ryan Murphy-ish effect, in that it does not offer the woman empathy or understanding, but amplifies her grotesquerie and her patheticness and her desperation. Neither Teste’s direction nor Adjani’s performance has the wherewithal to understand that unruliness is key to the story. A kay that has been discarded maliciously. By the end, I was the only person sitting in the audience as everyone around me stood and applauded for about five unbroken minutes. Both tales become bent, unrecognizable, yet uncanny, their strengths stripped from them vampirically, their roars and hisses silenced.
Brashness and uncontrolled rage and sadness and fury and everything in between are what make these stories fascinating; those elements, that emotional and physical bedlam are a challenge. They are defiance and opposition in the face of a dominant, withholding, demeaning power. Histrionics is just the dismissive term used in fear by those who don’t want to lose their power. And those who want to close the curtain on others.