Robert Tanitch reviews Ivo Van Hove’s Opening Night at Gielgud Theatre, London

Robert Tanitch reviews Ivo Van Hove’s Opening Night at Gielgud Theatre, London

Opening Night is based on the 1977 John Cassavetes film, a psychological drama, which starred Cassavetes’s wife, Gena Rowlands. It is described as a musical; but it’s more like a play with songs. There’s no dancing.

Ivo van Hove, the Belgian theatre director, well known for his minimalist and expressionistic approach, has written the book. Rufus Wainwright has written the music and the lyrics.

A documentary film crew is on stage filming a play which is still in rehearsal. The leading actress does not like the play and she cannot relate at all to the role she is playing, being unable to find its reality.

The popular middle-aged actress (played by Sheridan Smith) is in a bad way, having a massive mental breakdown, battling away with her demons. She is constantly collapsing during her interactions and altercations with the director, producer, author and the lead actor, her ex-boyfriend (played by Benjamin Walker). Will she make it to the opening night, seven days away?

There’s a large screen on stage so that we can see the actors’ faces in close-up. The film crew and their cameras are very visible. There is a live video sequence of her drunk and staggering into the Gielgud Theatre from Shaftesbury Avenue.

Early on, the actress witnesses a car crash in which a teenage girl is killed. The girl returns as a ghost to haunt her. The girl represents the youth she fears she has already lost.

Opening Night is an odd, strange, confusing piece. It’s a play within a play within a play and it is very bitty. It is not always easy to know whether we are watching the actors being themselves, actors rehearsing, or whether they are the characters in the play or whether the action is all going on inside the actress’s head.

The curtain calls are a send-up of curtain calls and an amusing way to end the show but they are totally at odds with what has gone before.

I came out of the theatre thinking it would be a good idea to see what John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands had done with it cinematically. The film is not an easy watch; but it works so much better as a film than Ivo Van Hove’s version does as a stage musical.

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