Richard Jordan: After critical disappointment, where next for the two most hyped shows of 2019?
All About Eve and When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other were two of London’s most anticipated plays of 2019, but when it comes to the end-of-year round-ups, they will probably be listed among the biggest disappointments.
On paper, these shows appeared unstoppable: When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is a new play by Martin Crimp directed by Katie Mitchell, starring Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane. When it went on sale at the National Theatre, demand for tickets was so great a ballot was introduced across the entire run. Expectations were sky high. Then the reviews came out.
Over at the West End’s Noel Coward Theatre, All About Eve, is an adaption by Ivo van Hove (who also directs) and has a glittery cast led by Gillian Anderson and Lily James. The advance buzz about it meant a Broadway transfer was almost guaranteed. Then, again, the reviews came out.
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other were some of the worst reviews I’ve ever read with the Sunday Times even giving the production no stars. All About Eve fared better with generally middling three-star write-ups. For any other show, this would probably have made its run a long, hard slog to the finish-line but its box office had already seen healthy advance sales through its pre-run hype.
The star casting in both had given the shows some protection against the critics, but what about beyond that? Both plays would have hoped for that alluring New York transfer. Bizarrely, the one with the worse reviews is possibly the more likely to get one, because if Blanchett wants to play New York, her name probably guarantees enough of an audience for a theatre or producer to feel confident to take that risk – especially if it went somewhere Off-Broadway.
Then it’s all down to whether Blanchett and Dillane want to, or are they feeling too bruised to risk the chance of a second critical mauling in New York. But perhaps the London critics have got it wrong? The reviews reminded me of the critics’ reaction to Sarah Kane’s 1998 play Cleansed when it opened at the Duke of York’s theatre. Almost two decades later, its revival received strong reviews and the opinion that Kane’s play had been unfairly misjudged.
Nonetheless, despite When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other’s sell-out run, do not underestimate how devastating this is for the National Theatre, which had gone into the new year believing it had scored one of the theatrical coups of 2019.
Blanchett’s name had, in-fact, originally been linked to All About Eve but she dropped out over reported scheduling conflicts. Even with its middling reviews, the producers behind All About Eve may still have felt confident enough to chance their hand on a Broadway transfer, but then it got hit with the additional (and potentially killer) blow – a negative review by Ben Brantley, chief critic at the New York Times who happened to be in London on his annual trip. That’s enough to make those once-previously interested Broadway producers feel anxious.
That anxiety may not just extend to a potential transfer of All About Eve, but also to those producers who are involved with Van Hove’s planned revisited production of West Side Story expected on Broadway later this year.
Van Hove has quickly become the most-feted director of the past decade. His radical conceptual version of A View From The Bridge, which transferred from the Young Vic to the West End and then on to Broadway, caught the attention of the theatre mainstream.
The avant-garde Belgian director’s work has earned him a band of disciples who have followed his career earnestly in the subsidised sector. But directors with such a strong profile in subsidised theatre can be at risk of criticism – unfairly – if they move into the commercial arena.
Trevor Nunn suffered from this reaction on becoming artistic director at the National – after a decade directing successful commercial plays and musicals – despite his roots being in subsidised theatre.
If West Side Story was to be opening Off-Broadway with the potential to then move on to Broadway – in much the same way as Oklahoma! is doing this season – then from the outset it would be celebrated as a radical reinterpretation. But this revival opens as a big Broadway production carrying with it all those pressures.
For Nunn’s musical successes, he also had the advantage that these were world premieres. In the case of Van Hove, he is directing a much-loved musical embedded in US culture. Up until a few weeks ago, the conceptual style that made him a thrilling choice, could have instead – as a result of the reviews for All About Eve – made him a big risk.
It remains to be seen if the New York Times still has the power to render a transfer of All About Eve from happening. Even if not, then one of the concerns for the producers of that show, and those of West Side Story, must be centred around how either productions’ reception on Broadway could affect the other.
If All About Eve opened first and its concept comes under critical attack, then it’s not good news for the impending reinterpretation of West Side Story. But if this reworked revival of West Side Story opens first and the press hate it, that may indicate the risk of an equally unreceptive response to the idea of another American classic reinterpreted by Van Hove.
For those West Side Story Broadway producers who may have read the All About Eve reviews, and feel a bit apprehensive as a result, they can take consolation from one of Van Hove’s earliest shows as a director – the Broadway transfer of Rent in Amsterdam. He has experience in the workings of a commercial Broadway musical. If he can get this fusion of concept and populist form right, then West Side Story could be a ground-breaking hit, which like Nunn in the 1980s, may see him described as the director who reinvented the Broadway musical.
However, if the past weeks in London theatre have taught us anything, it is to be reminded that hype can only take a production so far, and while you can be the biggest star or hottest director, that still doesn’t mean you are infallible.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan
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