What is this? A drama? A documentary? A radio play? A film? A computer game? Not for the first time, the work of Simon McBurney (director and co-writer with James Yeatman) and Compolicite defies categorisation. Here, his multi-media techniques are applied to telling the story of Robert Evans, a New York Jewish kid who rose to become a Hollywood mogul and fell almost as quickly. Music, sound effects, virtual reality and film clips all come into play. Actors speak directly to the audience and stand in front of cameras at the side of the stage, projected onto a big screen where they merge with footage of their real life equivalents. Had it been a film, this is a production that would be lined up for multiple awards for editing and the dizzying whirlwind that McBurney generates gives constant reminders that great art often arises out of chaos and disharmony.
At first a model and then a not very talented film actor who stayed in a picture despite protests from Ernest Hemingway, Evans chanced his arm to become the young boss of Paramount Studios, filling their coffers with the massive hits Rosemary’s Baby and Love Story, before creating cinema history with The Godfather and, as producer, Chinatown. He rubbed shoulders with Hollywood greats and politicians such as Kennedy and Kissinger and married the biggest star of the age, Ali MacGraw, before losing her because of his greater love story – that with his work. There is lots of juicy showbiz tittle-tattle to digest. More importantly, we get cutting insights into the Hollywood mentality that intoxicates everyone that we see, as when Evans persuades Mia Farrow to sacrifice her marriage to Frank Sinatra rather then lose an Oscar winning opportunity.
Eight actors – Thomas Arnold, Heather Burns, Christian Camargo, Max Casella, Clint Dyer, Danny Huston, Ajay Naidu and Madeleine Potter – share and interchange all the roles, their performances supporting a continuing narration as in a documentary film. The actors are not asked to develop characters and the drama does not emerge from interchanges between them, rather from the stories that they are telling. At first, as the eight line up in front of microphones, we ask whether the play, if that is what it is, would work better in audio-only format, but then, one after one, stunning visuals begin to appear and what we experience belongs uniquely and unquestionably to theatre.
There are echoes of Citizen Kane in McBurney’s style as he orchestrates matter-of-fact storytelling so that it generates its own emotional power and, in common with that masterpiece of cinema, his production climaxes with a haunting, revelatory image. Evans sits front of stage, back to the audience, watching himself watching himself acting opposite Ava Gardner in The Sun Also Rises. His is a story of a man who may have flown too close to the Sun, but, although we are told that his life was touched by personal loss, drugs, scandal, failure and financial ruin, we see no catastrophic fall. Evans was eventually eclipsed by new generations in the fickle business of movie making, his star faded and he simply grew old. He is now 86, credited as a co-producer here and still very much in the picture.
Performance date: 14 March 2017