Riverside Studios, London – until 16 April 2022
Women of the Hollywood golden age are only ever defined by two things, their beauty and men, the ones they stared alongside and the ones they married or had scandalous affairs with.
No one talks about Marilyn without some reference to JFK, Arthur Miller or Joe DiMaggio, Lauren Bacall’s name is always coupled to Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor to her many husbands and Ava Gardner to her four major relationships with Mickey Rooney, Howard Hughes, Artie Shaw and, of course, Frank Sinatra who left his young family for her.
Elizabeth McGovern’s new play, adapted from Peter Evans and Ava Gardner’s book which debuts at Riverside Studios, makes this point all too clearly as the actor, now holed-up in London after a semi-paralysing stroke, engages with a journalist commissioned to write her life story. ‘They took my voice’ she complains of her Studio bosses but in arranging her play around the men Gardner loved, so too does McGovern.
Beautiful, sexy and luminous are words most associated with Hollywood starlets of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and indeed they were, but they were also talented and savvy movie actors who commanded the screen with a technical and commercial understanding of cinema every bit as proficient and bankable as their male counterparts. Marilyn’s ultimate sex symbol status tends to obscure the brilliance of her comic persona in films like How to Marry a Millionaire and particularly Bus Stop while her tiny role in All About Eve is superbly pitched. Bacall is every bit Bogart’s intellectual and courageous equal in both To Have and Have Not and Key Largo, while Paul Newman more than meets his match in Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Ava Gardner forged a career playing tough, enigmatic and emotionally complex, resilient characters in all kinds of movies, yet it is still their glossy image and their private lives for which they are best remembered and, as is the way with indifferent journalism, these details always accompany their lives in print. Gardner and co rarely stand on their own terms, she is always actor and wife to Rooney, Shaw and Sinatra.
Ava: The Secret Conversations wants to set the record straight and actively sets out to do so, putting Ava in charge of telling her own story to biographer Peter Evans in a two-hander over 90-minutes of conversation. The scene setting is strong; the alcoholic Gardner is down on her luck, chain-smoking in a property in Ennismore Gardens, alone and despairing of the mess she has made of her life. Introduced by McGovern who also takes the title role, Ava is still a force, demanding and uncompromising, using her continued allure to manipulate Evans, telling only the things she wants to remember and purposefully evading attempts to draw out salacious tales of her varied menfolk. The outwitted Evans, increasingly pressured by his Editor to get Ava talking about her relationships, starts to flounder as his wily adversary evades him again and again, leaving the audience to assume she will only talk on her terms when she’s good and ready.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way and the piece is structured around the four men, priming the audience to anticipate their arrival and then, crucially, playing each of these scenes from the man’s perspective, nominally asking how this affected Ava but never fully exploring the consequences of these scenes for her own emotional, personal and career development. Instead she is pushed to the side, playing the all but silent role of “the wife” while the personalities, beliefs and neuroses of her starry partners is given the floor. What did Ava feel when her 9-month marriage to Rooney ended, when Hughes it is implied raped her, or when she was vilified for stealing Sinatra from Nancy, we never know because the play is too busy looking at them to worry about the consequences for the woman with her name on the title page.
There are a few moments of self-realisation within the story where Ava herself bemoans her lack of voice, using the chance to explain her biography to explore how the mechanics of the Studio System, and their commercial power to control both her career and physical representation on screen, sought to silence her when replacing her vocal in Showboat with another singer despite Gardner having prepared and rehearsed the songs for several months – a decision ultimately reversed for legal reasons. And there is much eyebrow-raising amusement to be drawn from the layered process of copying vocals back and forth. It is one of the crucial points that the show does well to land, making the ludicrous levels of control exhorted by a small cabal over what could and should be seen.
And this version of Ava actively acknowledges this power and cumulative effect it has had on her, referencing her subsequent determination to edit and control the manuscript Evans is creating through these meetings, a part of the story that allows Ava to hear her own voice reflected back at her for the first time without the filter of Hollywood scriptwriters and editors polishing her words. And although she is surprised by her own sweary shamelessness, it is an angle that should be more dominant in the production, exploring where the screen Ava and the lonely woman in the London flat with nothing but memories overlap.
Yet these moments are all too fleeting and the play prioritises Peter’s point of view, giving him the driving purpose and using the same actor to recreate three essential love affairs. That this becomes another male lens through which to view Ava seems to escape the creators but The Secret Conversations is framed as Peter approaching Ava. She may have requested the help but he sets the tone for the conversations they have through the questions he tries to ask her, and, vitally, it is Peter we follow beyond this room and are asked to psychologically align with throughout the show by going with him during the interludes between meetings. The audience is shown the pressure heaped on him by the publishing house to deliver a husband-focused impression of Ava’s life and the tension rises as his subject’s elusive, unyielding approach puts his deadline in danger.
The audience is also given an indication of Peter’s home life, the wife and children he must support and who he claims to love while it is his growing feelings for Ava, discussed with the unseen Editor portrayed as a God-like voiceover, that we see develop and cloud his judgement. Nowhere in this do we see what Ava was thinking, feeling, hoping for or needing from the project when trusting this stranger with her story. Across the production her changing feeling for him in the many months they spent together hardly feature and even her own circumstances during this period – why she was in London, who she knew and what she did between these sessions – is entirely overlooked. Ava throughout is presented as a figure to be admired, the screen siren alluring yet another man.
This slightly muddled narrative perspective is exacerbated by the choppy design approach that combines dramatic scenes recreating conversations between Ava and Peter as they develop the biography with recreations of key moments in her relationships, excerpts from films, photographs and some meta segments that have something to say about the nature of performance by revealing the inherent falsity in the staging that in some ways questions, even undermines the veracity of Ava’s perspective. Is what she is saying true or, in the nature of memory, a rehearsed fantasy version of what happened that she is so used to telling time and again that she is now convinced it is true?
At times, the scene dissolves as an exterior voice intrudes on Ava’s reminiscences; Peter thinks it is his Editor, Ava the command of Louis B. Mayer. That they both hear this intrusive presence and are yanked from the scene is never fully explained and it is not a theme that feels particularly developed nor does it seem intentional to question Ava’s version of events, Nonetheless, the style forces the audience to rethink what they are seeing as past, present and imagined scenes slip together leaving large question marks over the sequence of events and, with the play lightly touching on so many incidents in Gardner’s life, a slightly unsatisfactory or unresolved feeling as it concludes.
The design is visually impressive, employing a similar approach to Robert Icke’s The Red Barn (designed by Bunny Christie) that utilises a series of sliding black panels that move horizontally and vertically to create differently-sized boxes where scenes are played. It is quite a cinematic device that suits the subject matter and easily facilitates the shifts in location from Ava’s Knightsbridge flat to Peter’s home and the various hotel rooms, bars and studio sets where Ava worked and conducted her amours. It also allows director Gaby Dellal to create distinct points of interaction for the characters, adding intimacy to the their conversation in the flat where the full colour and expansiveness of her earlier life is only a memory as Ava and Peter sit on tasteful but drab furniture discussing a life of glamour, fame and excitement that took place many thousands of miles away and decades previously.
These contrast well with the brighter lit widescreen with which her former life is presented and helps Dellal to maintain the distinct phases of Gardner’s life while adding fluidity to the production as memories slide together seamlessly. These windows into the past are enhanced by a video design that helps to blur the lines between past and present, taking the central characters from rainy London at different times of day to a multitude of other locations. Although the rear stage backdrop has a tendency to bob very slightly like an old Technicolor musical (or Acorn Antiques background) that is deliberately false, the projection onto the main rooms is much more effective, allowing the scene to dissolve and become somewhere far more magical or exciting that stylishly transport the audience through the phases of Ava’s life.
McGovern captures the mercurial complexities of Ava, a woman who wants to take control of her life and how it is represented, using her continued allure to get what she wants. But there is something broken underneath, the consequence of being cast aside by Hollywood and her lovers that exists in McGovern’s performance that the play doesn’t fully mine in the way that Matt Greenhalgh’s film about Gloria Grahame, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, managed much better in contrasting the happiness of then and the pain of now.
Anatol Yusef really has the best of the action playing Peter, Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, capturing the essence of Ava’s trio of lovers with an interesting character performance that really brings the story to life, showing their influence over Ava as well as their controlling role in the relationships. As Peter, Yusef blends awe with a growing empathy for his subject, genuinely torn between his family and Ava’s fragility with increasing concerned about the betrayal of both.
Ava: The Secret Conversations is candid about her character and love affairs, suggesting a woman who didn’t want to play by the rules. But a show so focused on giving Gardner her voice still views her through the lens of her relationships, defining her by the men she married and the one who helped her to write her final story. Ava herself remains unreachable and silent.
Ava: The Secret Conversations runs at Riverside Studios until 16 April with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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In @AvaGardnerPlay at @RiversideLondon, ‘@ElizabethMcGov captures the mercurial complexities’ of the Hollywood Golden Age star, says @culturalcap1. #AvaGardner #AvaGardnerPlay #ElizabethMcGovern #theatrereviews