Award-winning actress Monica Dolan is currently onstage at the Noël Coward Theatre in London as Karen in All About Eve, with South African audiences having the opportunity to see a NT Live recorded broadcast of this play at Cinema Nouveau theatres from 4 to 9 May 2019. Having walked away with the 2019 Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress for this role, we asked Dolan to share some thoughts about her character in this intriguing play.
Having made a name for herself both on screen and stage, her theatre credits include her self-penned The B*easts, as well as She Stoops to Conquer, King Lear and The Seagull, the latter two with Ian McKellen. It's then no surprise that Dolan is recognised as one of the United Kingdom’s top character actors.
Her latest role sees her taking on the persona of Karen in All About Eve, a play that lifts the veil on the jealousy and ambition that runs through the entertainment industry, as it tells the story of actress Margo Channing (Gillian Anderson) who has to come to terms with her biggest fan, the beautiful Eve (Lily James), being a threat to the spotlight she has always claimed. This play is director Ivo van Hove’s adaption of the 1950s movie by the same name.
Dolan confesses that until 2015 —when she shared a dressing room with her then stage mom, Brid Brennan— she had not seen the movie. ‘We got chatting and at one point it became apparent that I’d never seen All About Eve. She could not believe it and sent me home to watch it. I think I watched it that night.’ Although Dolan has looked for it again, she has not seen the movie since, something she regards as lucky in the current context.
‘I think the way that we explore the piece in the theatre version of All About Eve is very different. Although there’s obviously darkness in the film and there’s obviously a gallows humour, it comes through the way the New Yorkers talk —it’s a speedy way of talking and they’re competing to speak. There’s a darkness underneath a lot of it, but I think with this more European version, shall we say, that darkness is given a bit more surface and a bit more space.’
So, although happy to have seen the movie, Dolan is quite content with not remembering the story in great detail. This faded memory gives her the space to explore her character within the tone and setting of the play as envisioned by Van Hove, without threatening her character’ development with a specific attachement to any way Karen was portrayed before in the movie.
When it comes to her character, Dolan fully embraces the power of storytelling and treasures her connection with the audience. ‘I’m very lucky in All About Eve in that one of the things I get to do, which not a lot of the other characters get to do, is to address the audience,’ Dolan contextualises. When getting an opportunity to break through the fourth wall in a narrator type role like Karen her approach is to think of the audience as just one other person she's talking to. She then considers why her character is addressing the audience to establish the degree of connection that she sees as the root of her acting style.
‘I think my character at first seems like just the narrator, but she’s also embroiled in the situation —I think my character wants to get to the bottom of something. So, it’s almost a confessional to the audience really.’
Being given the opportunity to draw inspiration and energy from the freedom to establish an audience connection does not mean that it’s necessarily an easy feat in a complex play.
‘All About Eve is incredibly technical so we do have things like underscoring; we have music sometimes under the narration. There’s one part where Karen talks about having an idea, then there’s a series of events that needs to land with the audience and the audience needs to understand. However, the whole speech is underscored with music so I can’t hear the audience, but certainly it’s still important for me to have developed that connection with them from the beginning.’
Because of this, Dolan makes full use of the fairly quiet moments at the beginning of All About Eve to hear the audience and determine where they are in relation to her character. Comparing her Karen-character with her acclaimed one-woman play, The B*easts, she shares that with the latter she was very aware of the audience and in so being able to determine when they were with her in the narrative and when they were ahead or behind her, which calculation was all important for that performance.
Audience awareness, so viewed, is not all as stressfull as it sounds, she elaborates, ‘there’s quite a lot of fun to be had in that’. Bringing that perspective back to Karen, Dolan continues:
‘Karen’s first line in this play is a question. She’s thinking back to the story of when Eve first came into her life —into their lives— and it’s very helpful to start with a question, because you’re sort of asking for help from the audience. The audience will hopefully want to help your character, so from the word go you’re kind of together.’
However, Dolan’s process in preparing to step into the shoes of her character is so much more than just the strong audience connection —albeit a very important element. She explains that a lot of her preparation process depends on her director’s approach; she regards it as ‘very important to be open and to stay open to the director’.
Reflecting on this being her first time working with director Van Hove, Dolan notes that he's very interested in behaviour without being overly interested in psychology:
‘If you start going into your character, he’s not very interested in talking about character, or what’s underneath. He’s interested in what’s on the page and how to get it off the page and into the space. He’s very, very interested in the picture.’
Within this approach of Van Hove, Dolan professes that she feels a part of a whole, with clear instructions on how to play things, which all helps in allowing her to work out more of an underpinning for her character. It is between Van Hove’s direction and his adapted text that she finds clarity on who her Karen is.
‘With All About Eve, I went through the text very slowly, not just the parts that my character is in, because my character is very much an observer as well. She knows a lot about the other characters, she’s known many of them for a long time and she’s somebody who’s a bit like a therapist. She’s very helpful to them all and wants to facilitate them all —so very much a people person.'
The text informs the awareness of people, things, and even timeframes that Dolan brings to Karen. By truly engaging with the text as her primary character-base, Dolan avoids falling into the trap of making up arbitrary things that the writer didn't intend.
Dolan describes the Karen that she draws from all that as being on a very interesting journey.
‘I don’t really want to describe it too much to people; I’d rather they come and experience it – but as she comes on and speaks to the audience, she’s introduced by another character, by Addison DeWit. All the characters are introduced by him and then she comes in and she’s trying to get the audience to help her remember when Eve came into their lives. Almost as soon as she starts to remember, as the narrator, she’s plunged back into the past as herself, as a character, to the previous October.’
Dolan further points out that there's a bit of a narrative-trick in allowing the audience to get used to Karen as an observer. At that point of complacency, ‘a situation is created where we realise she’s very, very much part of the plot; that’s one of the very clever things about the way it’s written and the way the character’s structured and why it races towards the end’.
In sharing all this, Dolan cautions: ‘But you must remember I’m talking completely from my character’s point of view; there are probably lots of things that happen to the other characters!’ This comment making the opportunity to see All About Eve at Cinema Nouveau soon all the more alluring.
Summing up Karen’s intention within the bigger All About Eve context, Dolan concludes:
'She wants people around her to be happy. If people are unhappy in any way she’s the kind of person that wants to solve it and make things balanced and create an equilibrium. And also, very importantly, she’s not a theatre person. All of the people around her are theatre people and I think she looks on it in quite a wry sort of way and is very convinced that she’s in charge of it and in charge of herself. She’s a confident person, I think. I won’t say more than that, I’ll give away what happens!’
South African audiences can see a NT Live screening of All About Eve, as currently playing to audiences in the United Kingdom (a production that the Daily Mail describes as 'event thetare done with tremendous panache', at Ster-Kinekor's Cinema Nouveau from 4 to 9 May 2019.