Royal Court, London – until 8 April 2017
The really interesting question arising from Simon McBurney’s latest multi-media bonanza is why Robert Evans? The amount of money and artistry lavished on this admittedly important but by no means the most influential of Hollywood producers – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Godfather are some of his major credits – is considerable.
The answer it turns out was Evans went searching for McBurney which perhaps explains the somewhat bathetic quality of its finale which shows an aged Evans – the great survivor – having outlived and outlasted triumph and disaster (drugs and associated murder), major strokes and penury, is still as he puts it `in the front seat of the greatest show on earth, life’.
Oh dear! Cue Norma Desmond! In fact, this portrait of the producer as a control freak is also a love letter to the silver screen in all its gory detail. Hardly the first attempt to depict its internecine, bear-pit competitiveness, still McBurney being McBurney brings his inimical bravura style to the depiction of Evans’ rise to fame from growing up in Harlem to fleeting acting stardom thanks to being hand-picked by Norma Shearer (he was a handsome boy in his youth!) to play her ex-husband, Irving Thalberg and on into producing, becoming head of Paramount Pictures for a while.
Luck seems to have been his constant companion in the beginning, reaching its zenith with Love Story, falling in love with and marrying its star, Ali McGraw. After that, it appears to have been one downhill debacle after another.
It takes McBurney two and a half hours to tell Evans’ story – two and a half hours that begin to pall despite the visual brilliance which has one cinematic trope after another laced over each other. There are mics; there are innumerable quick change thumb nail portraits, there are close-ups, there are images reflected back from stage onto screen.
It is technological and theatrical sleight of hand of the first order. I can think of only one other British director who comes near McBurney for his intermingling of genres and that is Katie Mitchell. And of course, there is Robert Lepage who was perhaps the first to see the potential of the fusion of theatrical and cinematic techniques.
But Mitchell has neither McBurney’s playfulness nor hectic obsession with speed. Lepage’s imaginative thrust and visual narration are, we know, second to none.
What The Kid stays in the Picture tells us, graphically – and maybe McBurney meant it as a kind of metaphor for our time – is the addiction of power and `the deal’ and the role of the phone in it all. The telephone here looms large, the means by which power is exerted, manipulated and controlled and the deal made.
David Mamet knew all about `the deal’ and described it time after time in plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo and Speed the Plow – his own dissection of the movie industry. But here, McBurney fleshes it out with an Anglo-American cast of extraordinary versatility. And at a breathless, breakneck speed which can become confusing and uncomfortable.
Still, apart from Christian Camargo’s bespectacled, by turns languid and obsessed `Robert’, there are striking moments from Madeleine Potter as Norma Shearer and as a feisty Faye Dunaway confronting Max Casella’s Roman Polanski, Heather Burns as a fey Mia Farrow whilst Danny Huston’s provides a gravelled-voice narration as the older Robert Evans looking back.
Enjoyable up to a point, cineastes will feast out on its many memories and name checks. Others may find it a dizzying, over-egged, self-absorbed experience.
McBurney has become such a magician but his skills were so much better utilised and significant in the service of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity.