The Best 'Playvie' in Town
based on the life story of
directed by Simon McBurney
Is it a play? Sort of. Is it a movie? Again, sort of. The English language needs a new word to describe Complicite's rip-roaring, multi-sensory staging of movie mogul Robert Evans' bestselling 1994 autobiography, which was also once made into a film. With up to four screens on stage projecting clips from classic movies as well as live camera shots, plus a pulse-racing soundtrack, this is a play-movie. Let's call it a 'playvie'. To emphasise the point, this playvie has no fewer than five Hollywood/Broadway producers of its own, including the now 86 year-old tycoon himself, Barbara Broccoli, and her brother Michael G. Wilson -- famous producers of the gazillion-dollar James Bond franchise. La La Land has well and truly come to the Royal Court.
Simon McBurney and James Yeatman's noisy adaptation and direction tell Evans' story at wonderful breakneck speed. It's a well-known tale of rags to riches to almost rags again (and riches again), with a lot of self-mythologising, a tiny amount of humility, and bucketloads of defiance. It's a remarkable if baffling career, as Evans tells it: life sweeps him along almost against his will from young Harlem hustler to budding movie star to Paramount Pictures' saviour and titan producer of such mind-boggling successes as The Godfather, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. His fall, when it inevitably comes, is no less dramatic: including a major drugs bust, implication in a violent murder, and secure mental hospital incarceration. Five decades of Tinseltown history and gossip are exhilaratingly crammed into two and a half hours.
The pace never lets up. Evans is played not by one actor but by almost as many actors as he has had wives. He's had seven (so far), and we learn little about them here other than that one ran off with Steve McQueen. Three excellent performances portray the young, middle-aged and old Evans -- Heather Burns (who also plays Mia Farrow), Christian Camargo, and the gravelly-voiced Danny Huston (whose actor/director dad John starred in Chinatown, which is given prominence here). The five other company members also narrate Evan's words in a variety of distorted microphone voices jostling to spit out the many stories as fast as they can. There are no scene changes on Anna Fleischle's technically masterful set, just an endless stream of different characters and dizzying action, like a film reel unspooling at a million miles an hour while projecting the results onto the stage.
It's a rollercoaster ride, and the car never for a second pauses to dwell upon or analyse anything. The Robert Evans presented here is a caricature of a caricature, a sweary persona we're not invited to get to know or understand (or like). He comes across as little more than a trumped-up, over-produced Hollywood icon: the legendary Robert Evans. But it's a mightily enjoyable portrayal, and his behind-the-scenes tall tales of tyrannical movie studio bosses, precious movie directors (like Polanski, Coppola) and temperamental stars (e.g. Farrow, Brando) are hysterical. He lifts the golden lid of the Hollywood toilet to show us the shit. Danny Huston's older Evans is only seen behind a screen in silhouette for most of the show, and Evans himself remains a shadowy, not to say shady, enigma.
"It's not a play," Evans told Vanity Fair recently in a rare interview. This production has been several years in the making and not without its own off-camera problems. "It's not a drama. It's not a musical. It's a trip…" It is certainly a trip but also the best playvie you're ever likely to see.
photos | ©Johan Persson