NB: For clarification, where ‘Ava’ is written in this review, this refers to the character of Ava within this performance; where ‘Ava Gardner’ or ‘Gardner’ is written, this refers to the real Ava Gardner herself.
Based on the book of the same name by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, playwright Elizabeth McGovern performs as Ava in her new play directed by Gaby Dellal and staged at Riverside Studios: Ava: The Secret Conversations.
I shall start with the thing that really sets this play apart from others: its set design. The set for this performance (designed by Hannah Rozenberg under the direction of Leo Warner and Ben Pearcy) is both stunning and unique. Projections (video designs by Matthew Taylor) and detailed set furnishings really allow for a transformativity of the stage and a distinctness in its various locations. I would just recommend that the wallpaper chosen for Ava’s lounge stay consistent throughout, especially if furniture will stay the same, to ascertain that this is, indeed, the same room. However, the projected footage of Ava Gardner, though relative to the chronology of the narrative of the play, is in stylistic and topical juxtaposition with the content we are being presented by the actors. Merely the knowledge that Gardner is a performer, for example, or the playing of swing music, is not enough to justify the inclusion of footage of her singing and dancing at any given moment. This footage should aim to coincide with and complement the meanings and subjects proposed to us by the texts it rests in-between and not merely to present excess material relative to the mere theme of Hollywood and the past of our titular character.
Following on from a recent surge in biographical works centred on celebrities, particularly those from Hollywood, just as in this case, this set design certainly gets its inspiration, whether actively or not, from such contemporary representations in film. The sliding panels that frame the stage are reminiscent of simultaneous scenes or “split screens” in mainstream cinema, where a defined black border both separates the multiple scenes from one another and borders the overall frame according to the desired aspect ratio. This is a clever design and, again, aesthetically very appealing. The scope of the stage is toyed with so beautifully by this framing, providing every perspective from complete access to Ava’s lounge to a shrinking view of her hand alone, and this is most successful in focusing audience attention accurately.
However, despite the integrity this design has in itself, the very thing it evokes, contemporary Hollywood cinema, and film in general, is not representative of the era in focus, and so an overall feel and aesthetic for Ava’s lifetime, both in her youth and maturity, is thus compromised. We lose the glitz and glamour of the Golden Age and are presented with a visual reflection of current times, and this is most subtractive for a biographical work dealing with a historical figure.
There is notably also a danger of distracting the audience with just how efficient and dynamic the aesthetics of this performance are. Actively focusing our attention, actively shaping our fourth wall, the passive moving frame becomes an agent in itself, allowing for an acute awareness of technical elements that easily lifts an audience from the world of the play and into a fascination with theatrical constituents and “the power” and “possibilities” of theatre itself. It is easy, therefore, to confuse this fascination with an acknowledgement that the set design actually progressed, benefitted and consolidated the action we are presented [as opposed to evoking merely a similar sentiment]. I do not believe it did.
My last issue has to do with this aforementioned efficiency. Ironically, I would have liked a great deal more accuracy and precision with this framing, which was at times shaky and unstable, its vibrations causing the projector, and thus the entirety of the image forming our background, to shake along with it. For instance, during the scene wherein Peter (Anatol Yusef) returns home ‘in the rain’, he is followed and framed by a rectangular portrait window, made by these dark sliding panels, yet is only visible head-on as he traverses the stage. As soon as he is slightly to the left or right from any given audience member, he is immediately partially obscured by the side of the frame. In fact, there was an instance where I could not see him at all, only the set behind him. This is exactly what I mean by a [needless] heavy use of technical elements that distract the audience away from the very action of the play that actually matters, but a lack of precision as perceptible here also constitutes a theme I will return to often in this review.
As for writing, I note the deliberate decision to have Gardner’s story overshadowed by the famous men that surrounded her, both with Peter’s agent’s requests for more information on them alone –– only for this ignorant information to be seen as a recount of HER life –– and with Peter falling in love with Ava himself, as though she remains throughout, in the past as now, an irresistible, mystical seductress and nothing more. And this is something we see Ava struggling with as she aims to reconstruct herself as someone who does not swear, who is not promiscuous, who is philosophical and intellectual, focused on serious matters such as mortality and the preciousness of life, having nearly lost her own. This focus on the men in her life intensifies as the play goes on, and, in theory, this is most beneficial to our reading of her image.
However, because of how deliberate and constant this is, when we realise at the end that we have not found out an incredible amount about Gardner herself, it is natural to feel rather disappointed and cheated of our time. Furthermore, there are so many of these famous men in focus that each has too little stage time for us to feel that their presences are sufficient and substantial enough to declare this story about them, either, meaning that it is easy to feel that this story is about everyone and yet no one simultaneously. The play attempts a documentation of Gardner’s life, but what we actually receive is a glitzy series of caricatures representative of familiar famous faces. This is further complicated by stylistic and technical eccentricities, such as McGovern and Yusef’s rather self-mocking and stylistically incongruous dancing together as Ava and Michael Rooney, to such a degree that the focus remains principally on the theatricality –– or, otherwise, the aesthetic/external accuracy –– of the representations we are presented, as opposed to on veracity and relatability. We lose sense of the human in this story very early on, and what could be a very poignant and exposing retelling becomes a mere, unfinalised, sensationalist text.
As for McGovern and Yusef’s performance, their energy is notably faultless throughout. They have great confidence and stature on stage and have defined their characters very well. However, attention to detail is incredibly lacking. Their characterisations become somewhat stilted as the performance goes on, with all idiosyncrasies the two have designed for themselves wearing thin long before the close of the play. The two, though mostly Yusef, struggle conspicuously to maintain the accents they have chosen for their characters, culminating in a shambolic and confused portrayal towards the end of the play as Yusef fails to switch distinctly between the character of Frank Sinatra and Peter, ultimately blending them with one another, then losing the rhythm and sound of each altogether.
Though more of a directorial issue, I imagine, McGovern has a habit throughout of delivering her lines to the audience, looking out into the house, as opposed to at her addressee, Yusef’s character. With Yusef’s gaze kept strong and uniquely on her, this intensifies the fact that this is a representational performance, and we lose the naturalism and credibility of the scene completely.
Admittedly, both actors recover very well from momentarily forgetting or stumbling over their lines, but the mere fact that these lines are stumbled over in the first place, and the frequency with which this happens, is most disappointing.
There are many suchlike instances that highlight the imprecisions in these actors’ performances of these actors, and they are difficult to ignore, with Yusef bumping into one of the dresses on the clothing rack, causing it to fall off, for example, or with him having to readjust his hat that he had allowed to tilt so far forward so that it obscured his eyes. These unskillful displays certainly subtract from our reading, and better refinement and training ought to be considered.
However, these performers remain consistent throughout, clear of their character intent and objectives. Diction is wonderful, for the most part, and physicality is rarely amiss. It is just the mechanicality of movements and the over-rehearsed speech that I have an issue with, overall.
A few final notes. Music (sound design by Ella Wahlström) is very well composed, but it suffers from a great overuse, nay misuse. It seems as though the creatives felt the need to increase momentum or glamourise certain sequences through the use of swing music, and this is unnecessary. Music should be deliberate but only used when essential to progress the narrative, not just because it bears some relevance to Gardner’s life in show-business, and not merely to entertain or to provide the audience with a “catchy” rhythm. Costuming (wardrobe and wigs managed by Holly Gooch), however, is superb and accurate. It does retain a [preferable] understated naturalism, though, that is not present in the rest of the spectacular and sensationalist aesthetic we are provided. It feels out of place for this reason but, in itself, it is very well-conceived, indeed. Wigs are sorely artificial and need to be better treated.