All About Eve - London

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All About Eve Star Julian Ovenden on Bringing the Classic Film to Life on the London Stage

All About Eve Star Julian Ovenden on Bringing the Classic Film to Life on the London Stage
Julian Ovenden
(Photo courtesy of The Corner Shop PR)

About the Show

Julian Ovenden’s lustrous singing voice has graced many a musical and concert performance both sides of the Atlantic. In recent years, though, the actor has turned his attention to plays, from the superlative Donmar revival of My Night with Reg to Martin Crimp’s challenging The Treatment at the Almeida. On February 2, he starts previews at the Noel Coward Theatre in the starry West End premiere of All About Eve, starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James and adapted and directed by the firebrand Belgian director Ivo van Hove, of Network and A View from the Bridge fame. caught the ever-engaging Englishman one recent afternoon to discuss forging a play out of arguably the best film ever made about the theater.

What drew you to this play, which is among the most eagerly anticipated London openings of the year?
I was sent it about five or six months ago, and there were many compelling things about it, not least the material but also Ivo, Gillian, Lily, Sonia [Friedman, the producer], who I think is tremendous. Ivo comes with a reputation now and a cachet with his shows where they are sort of the hot ticket, and I was interested and intrigued by what his process is and what he might bring to this particular piece.

What are you finding so far, with the first preview still to happen?
Because we’re right in the middle of it, it’s difficult to put into words, but the thing with Ivo is that he’s a pretty humble sort of guy: he doesn’t want the spotlight on him, he wants it on the work, which I admire. And, you know, he’s been doing what he does his entire career; it’s not as if he’s some 24-year-old kid who has got lucky.

Julian Ovenden and Gillian Anderson in rehearsal for All About Eve
(Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

How would you compare this play to its legendary 1950 celluloid source, which was nominated for 14 Oscars and won six?
I don’t want to give too much away while we’re still in the germination phase but Ivo has a strong idea about the tone of the piece and the effect he wants to create. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screenplay is tremendous but it’s a screenplay, so you have to try and find a language that works onstage; you can’t just quote it verbatim. You have to find a language that works theatrically.

Will devotees of the film recognize what is opening February 12 at the Noel Coward Theatre?
There are no speeches where you think, “This doesn’t sound like All About Eve.” [The play] all sounds as if it is coming from one voice, which is the original. We’re pretty much following the Mankiewicz script for all intents and purposes, with a little bit of editing and omission. There may be some theatrical conceits but Fox Stage Productions are in partnership on this, and I don’t think they would allow anyone to sit there rewriting the language.

How would you set this play against Ivo van Hove’s current Broadway production of Network, which is also based on an iconic film?
I actually saw Network very recently in New York having missed it in London, and it was really something: the theatrical language of it just sort of hits you, and I thought Bryan [Cranston’s] performance was really wonderful. But unlike that play, which has a political kind of backdrop, we’re not delving into that side of things. We’re following Mankiewicz’s words, which are fantastic: there’s no referencing Donald Trump [who appears in video footage at the end of Network].

What does it feel like, as an actor, to be playing a director—the role, Bill, originated by Gary Merrill in the film?
I think especially because we’re sort of in the midst of coruscating directors or people with power in show biz at the moment, it’s actually quite nice to be playing someone who is loyal and fairly well-behaved and has some kind of integrity. I’m not the most important person in the room in the play, and there are directors now who would be, but Bill is important in terms of how he navigates relationships and how they navigate relationships with him—how Eve Harrington [Lily James’s character] treats me as the director and what kind of use I am to her.

Have you drawn inspiration from any directors you’ve worked with, or even from Ivo himself?
[Laughs] There have been discussions about how closely to Ivo, or not, I should be playing the role, though the circumstances within the play are completely different. But it’s interesting playing a director because you can’t help but reference the people you’ve been directed by, and I’ve been lucky enough to be directed by some amazing people.

Might the play help remind audiences that a film dominated by women [four of its actresses were nominated for Oscars] has men in it, too, and not just the theater critic, Addison DeWitt?
It’s interesting you say that because when I first got sent this, I couldn’t remember the guys’ roles. I remembered the critic who has some great lines but I didn’t remember the director at all. But the thing with Ivo is that he wants to see everything and explore everything; nothing gets lost.

How does that manifest itself in practice?
We’re trying to make more of the love story in the play. The film is very much focused on the age thing and the jealousy and Eve taking over from Margo [Channing, the legendary actress]. Obviously all that is there as a main thrust of the piece but we’re also looking at the love story between Margo and Bill and for Gillian [Anderson] and me to find more in that [relationship] than is perhaps apparent in the film.

What are your thoughts on Gillian having to compete with the enduring memory of Bette Davis’s Margo on screen?
I think Gillian’s going to be terrific in her own way and totally different from Bette Davis. There might be some people coming who are going to want a carbon copy of the film but I think there will also be those people wanting something else, and Gillian certainly has the experience and the talent to know how to deal with that.

Does the dynamic between Margo and Eve resonate afresh today, with the continual thirst for the young and the new?
That feeling of being replaced is human nature. We’re all mortal beings and it exists within us all. There’s a clock, isn’t there, and it’s magnified if you feel like your position is slipping or is being taken by someone else. That’s part of being human, and I think it's totally resonant nowadays.

Have we lost you in recent years from the world of musicals?
Not at all! There was one possibility for me that didn’t kind of work when some TV options got in the way, but I’ve been saying for quite a few years now that I’ve got to get back to musicals. It’s not like I’ve been avoiding them but it’s about finding the thing that really rocks my boat. I’m definitely wanting to, but it’s a bit like waiting for the right bus: you know it when it comes along.