FringeReview UK 2017
Simon McBurney and James Yeatman meld out of a blockbuster a blockbuster feel to this autobiography of Robert Evans, which they direct, McBurney leading in this take on the autobiography of ’Half-assed actor’, clothes model, Robert Evans yanked off by Ava Gardner to portray boy-genius-husband-producer Irving Thalberg, and saves Paramount. Anna Flischele’s set includes a tracking camera focused on an image stage left: protagonists in various guises fetch up against it, all projected onto Simon Wainwright’s huge backdrop like intimate Hollywood Super-Eight wittily spliced with scenes from the films Evans produced. Another camera vertically positioned swoops on photographs: love’s detritus on a fridge-top. Even props teeter prophesies over the darks of Paul Anderson’s lighting, film-noir meets polychrome.
The company had the book thrown at them, told to select what they liked and get one with it. Simon McBurney and James Yeatman meld out of a blockbuster a blockbuster feel to this autobiography of Robert Evans, which they direct, McBurney leading. ’Half-assed actor’, clothes model, Evans is yanked off by Ava Gardner to portray boy-genius-husband-producer Irving Thalberg woodenly, then in The Sun Also Rises only director Darryl Zanuck’s yelling – yes, the eponymous words of memoir and play saves Evans, twice.
With that yell Evans realizes he’s the next Thalberg. Throughout the heltering swirl of two acts, such quotable gestures and dramatic ironies contrive to keep material selected from mere dazzling chronicle, at times plumbing something other, more enthralling. Evans does but fitfully reflect, but more than fitfully knows himself. The son of an idealistic New-Deal dentist who suddenly gets story as the thing to revive movies, shows an unerring nose – and someone to read them.
It begins a cappella, Evans’ voice refracted from cigar-rich basso to high soprano, as the eight-strong cast ghost him into more consistent avatars (two actors, mainly one). Anna Flischele’s set includes a tracking camera focused on an image stage left: protagonists in various guises fetch up against it, all projected onto Simon Wainwright’s huge backdrop like intimate Hollywood Super-Eight wittily spliced with scenes from the films Evans produced. This on occasion opens into the home Evans owned for twenty-five years, forced to sell, lease back, only rescued by Jack Nicholson. Another camera vertically positioned swoops on photographs: love’s detritus on a fridge-top. Even props teeter prophesies over the darks of Paul Anderson’s lighting, film-noir meets polychrome.
Christina Cunningham’s costumes reach a highpoint with much else in a climactic snow-scene, December 1969. Evans, bride Ali McGraw (red-capped in period) and boss of the Paramount Studios Evans has just saved with Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story – blazoned spectacularly here in towering buildings – later The Godfather and Chinatown, feel on top. It’s as giddying as the manic helix of deals Evans creates with every twist of his DNA. Like a spiralling staircase with a sudden drop. ‘Like a parachute, a film only opens once; if it doesn’t, it’s dead.’
That comes in a phone call with a sudden pull into Evans’ house. His brother’s minor involvement in coke-dealing touches Evans who’s sciatica is relieved by it. It’s compounded by a murder he’s wrongly implicated in for six years. But this 1980 fall – he’s ostracized for two decades even from the studio he saved – has jumped on from 1972 with McGraw and Kissinger on each arm. He’s saved Kissinger’s ass, Kissinger obliges as does the Firm’s fixer, one to bring Brando to The Godfather premiere he never attends normally, the other to placate the mob. Neither forgive him for not asking for help later.
Most of the first part’s dazzling story adumbrates Evans’ genius for recognizing, acquiring, selling back storytelling. There’s a danger even McBurney and Yeatman are bombarded by electrons of Evans’ free-floating whirl like the snowstorm effects. The first half’s expositional but wait for the moment the music of Rosemary’s Baby floats back eerily just around the time he’s accepting Sharon Tate’s offer to come up for the weekend. He’s late, called by voiceless weeping; the moment’s a shiver of theatrical coup.
The crunchy quotables too ‘What can you say of a man..’ ripple throughout Evans’s courtship of McGraw, who, difficult as she seems, is devoted but also ‘hot’ asks not to be left alone. Forcing her to act with McQueen in Getaway (she’s making to retire) the rest spins, the mid-Seventies successes like Marathon Man spool past because here’s 1980. It’s one of the rare reflective panels where words pattern a sarabande of pathos.
And 1998. Gunshots and his jerking body suggest the Firm’s finally taken against him but the stroke felling Evans usefully frames a glaucous use of that Super-eight effect too. The hallucinogenics again simply can’t be dwelt on as so much story’s crammed in a spiral of proleptic moments we finally catch up with as well as a more silken landing than that jagged scraper jump-off promises. Evans seems born with a parachute strapped to his seat.
Christian Camargo’s lean spectacle-geeky handsomeness belies how effective he is with the main burden of Evans, and Heather Burns as McGraw in particular and Farrow consistently swoops in and out of movie to intimate self, often with intimate close-ups. Danny Huston’s persona bellows every mogul including throating out a softer older Evans. The ensemble’s hardly less remarkable: Thomas Arnold, Max Casella, Clint Dyer, Ajay Naidu and Madeline Potter.
The ensemble dazzles, sometimes in depth. All said, Evans is resistant. Even two hours fifteen running time hardly crams in the moment’s talent, but that sliver of genius, Evans’ timing, is pitched to radiant self-addiction. It’s seized on here, a narcissism needing to reflect other faces than his own in his lenses. The riddle of friends’ loyalty can’t be sounded for instance. Nicholson’s, or James Cagney who saves Evans in his first picture: both men turn lifelong friends. Why?
In the best sense this production’s stupefying, a spectacle shot through with theatrical tropes suggests that, if they could be more frequent, Kid would be dramatically breathtaking too. And it is thrillingly itself. But how jettison anything? Perhaps another fifteen minutes of unfamous Evans. What’s glimpsed behind that glare eludes us. Evans can’t tell us himself, and it’s time to be gone.