Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp has this section I love –
“All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy… It is a love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’, of things-being-what-they-are-not…Camp sees everything in quotation marks…to perceive Camp is to perceive Being-as-Playing-a-Role”
All About Eve (the stage production) is pretty fucking camp. Like, down to its genetics and source material, it’s a camp piece of work. Characters are always performing, characters fear that they are loved for their image over their self… But it’s all pretty lower case camp. It has the possibility to be capital-C Camp, but it doesn’t quite get there. And that’s a massive shame, and probably the reason it never totally takes flight, but stays rather stubbornly stuck to the ground.
(This makes it sound like I really didn’t like it. I did like it! It’s just if you give me a taste of Camp, I tend to want a whole lot more)
It’s stylish. Undeniably so. So it’s an easy watch, because frankly it’s very fun to watch rich people swanning around a beautiful set in silks and furs and red lipstick, being horrible to each other. The text, though, adapted by van Hove from Mankiewicz’s 1950 film, is weirdly dense. Lots of monologues about the backstories of characters who aren’t Eve Harrington (Lily James) or Margot Channing (Gillian Anderson) or Karen Richards (Monica Dolan), and who frankly I can’t care all that much about. Julian Ovenden does his best with a mealy part as Channing’s handwringing, devoted partner (frankly, it’s quite a satisfying shift for the underwritten spouse character to be a white guy for once), and Stanley Townsend does all but start gnawing on the side of the proscenium arch with his panto-villain inflected take on Addison Dewitt, the all-powerful theatre critic (lol).
Van Hove also employs a deeply annoying tactic of getting secondary characters to narrate what’s going on onstage, something which made my eyes roll back into my head whenever Monica Dolan (who I feared was going to be criminally underused but is thankfully given a Campy bathroom scene with Lily James towards the play’s close) stalked centre-stage to do some exposition. Maybe that choice is to emphasise the performativity of the whole thing – in Sontag’s words, “the thing of pure artifice” – but it just feels a bit naff. And naff is adjacent to Camp, but it crucially isn’t Camp. The most capital-c Camp moment in the whole play comes when Anderson looks into her mirror and the camera does some tricksy CGI work and transforms her into an old, wrinkled woman. It’s horrifying, but also…very silly and funny. I don’t know if it was meant to be funny? I hope it was.
Anderson is great, as you might expect. She swans around the set, bending the space around her, never getting swallowed up by it. Her transatlantic drawl is stretched to its dry, droll limits, relishing lines like that “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” one without having to do a big wink at the audience. James has so much less to do. It’s quite weird, how peripheral her character is, meaning that her shift from wide-eyed ingenue to hard-as-nails social climber feels jarring. She’s ghost-like, haunting the edges of the set, and when she comes into crisp view in the final third it feels long overdue.
The aesthetic of Jan Versweyveld’s set reminds me a bit of the Rothko room in the Tate Modern. The installation is a room with precise, dim lighting, with Rothko’s enormous black and maroon canvases stretching from floor to ceiling. You feel simultaneously relaxed and unsettled, like you’re either back in the womb or in a room that’s been walled up from the inside. Versweyveld, a consistent van Hove collaborator, induces a similar feeling of creeping claustrophobia with his washed red walls and pitch-black doors, which pull up only partway to reveal the stage’s back wall. When the lights flood blood red, it’s like you’ve been plunged into a Dario Argento film. Or somewhere adjacent to that. It’s not exactly that. This feels like a constant in van Hove’s production – his flirtation with certain elements and influences, flitting from one to the other – inflecting the piece with horror, with comedy and satire, but never quite settling down to let the audience grasp it with both hands.
All About Eve is on at Noël Coward Theatre until 11th May 2019.