The Daily Telegraph
Simon McBurney’s whizzy voyage around a genuine Hollywood legend
Simon McBurney’s homage to the Hollywood film producer Robert Evans begins on a note of panic. The New York world premiere of The
Godfather (1972) approaches, but Marlon Brando has had to drop out.
Where’s the celebrity fire power? Evans thinks, sweats, dials the White House, gets his pal Henry Kissinger, calls in a favour. “I need you with me tonight, Henry.” Agonising pauses; there’s the North Vietnamese offensive, a flight first thing… “I’ll get back to you.” One of Kissinger’s assistants then phones. He’ll come. “Would you mind if he changes at your hotel?”
If you’ve read the 1994 memoir of the same name upon which this show is based, you’ll know this anecdote and many of the others that McBurney crams into his technically whizzy voyage round a legend who’s still living at 86.
Anyone can find out the bare bones of Evans’s CV: he’s the briefly famous young actor who stormed the LA citadel as the wildcard appointment to head of production at Paramount, and who, over a decade or so, before the dream turned sour, shook the status quo, producing not only The Godfather but Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story,
Chinatown, gold standards of intelligence from the age before it was blockbusters or bust.
The book fleshed out the highs and lows across 450 entertaining pages. This distillation of Evans’s story gives you a heady taste of its madness and magic: a freefall through a life which, fusing theatre and film, honours its rip-up-the-rulebook subject.
McBurney, artistic director of Complicite, refracts the key chapters through the prism of noir – we move from one vignette to the next as if on a breathless quest to solve the Rosebudlike riddle of Evans’s personality. In youth, he’s played by an actress, Heather Burns; then, in his polonecked prime by Christian Camargo. In his oldest incarnation, he dominates proceedings as a stooped silhouette: Danny Houston (son of another titan of Tinseltown, John) breathes a Barry White baritone into a microphone, his voice as melancholy as the interspersed snatches of The Godfather’s signature trumpet, every line a resonate trickle of gravel in our ears.
It’s as much an auditory experience – the phone ringing with promises of deals to be won, or lost, the actors’ voices often distorted for cinematic, comical or even gender-switching effect – as it is a visual experiment. On Anna Fleischle’s alchemical back- screen, which also houses the reclusive resting place of the seventimes-married visionary whose flashback (stroke-induced, drugaddled?) reverie this might be, we see a dance of light. Camera feeds recreate famous celluloid moments (“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”), family photos slide in and out of view, archive footage recalls Evans’s fleeting heyday as a matinee idol.
It’s often very funny – the dramatis personae include an inaudible Brando, a barely English-speaking Roman Polanski, a coolly quarrelsome Francis Ford Coppola and cigar-chomping Darryl F Zanuck, who gave the immortal instruction on the set of The Sun Also Rises, yelled via megaphone at the stellar cast sneering at Evans’s landing of the matador juve-lead: “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” This project has been in development hell for years. Here, against the odds, it has wound up as some kind of cinematic-theatrical paradiso.
Until Apr 8. Tickets: 020 7565 5000; royalcourttheatre.com