The earth shattering, appreciative and rather long applause that greets Glenn Close as she makes her entrance on to the Coliseum’s stage may feel a little disruptive and ‘lovey’, but heck, I’m sure she doesn’t mind. Close’s role as the delusional and tragic Norma Desmond constantly commands and grants such adoration from her audience. There’s a breathtakingly, poetic irony in the reaction Close invites and that Desmond, in a long drawn psychotic state, still believes she receives. In again taking on this role, the Hollywood star could be giving us lessons on her predecessors, and on how her own career and life could have turned out. Much like such films as 2014’s Maps to the Stars, we are given an insight into the troubled, disturbed world of Hollywood and the warped expectations of one’s appearance – especially for women who are facing more mature years.
Inspired by the 1950 film, Andrew Lloyd Webber takes us back to the transition between silent movies and the ‘talkies’. Actresses such as the one portrayed in Sunset Boulevard were showbiz royalty prior to Hollywood’s huge upheaval in the 1920s. Praised for their looks and audience appeal, they were launched up onto a pedestal and when many couldn’t make the transition, would fall from a phenomenally great height, often inevitably going mad. First opening in London in 1993, US productions followed with Close in the title role. After ENO’s Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson last year, this again is a break from the company’s usual repertoire and whilst this too is an unconventional, semi-staged version, it, for the most part works exquisitely.
The feeling of nostalgia, even if it isn’t our own specific feeling of it, is dominant in Lonny Price’s production. Screen projections of old, black and white footage of Hollywood are sublimely placed both at the fore and rear of the stage. Michael Reed’s 48-piece on-stage orchestra fills the room with deep emotion and are often involved with the action. Especially in the beginning of Act One, we are treated to an overarching, jazzy feel whilst the score becomes steadily more dramatic as the reality of where Desmond’s state will lead becomes apparent. The music and ‘old-Hollywood’ feel also gives Sunset Boulevard an entirely epic feel and whilst it is sometimes difficult to grasp the context with the small space left unmarked by the orchestra, there is still a dazzling, powerful energy. The overall aesthetics are electrifying and a large set of stairs provide Close especially, with the device that will create much of her melodrama.
Michael Xavier’s struggling writer is likable and keeps up the guess work. Is he an opportunist or a victim of Desmond’s innocent but crafted manipulation? The chemistry he has with Close and Siobhan Dillon’s Betty Schaefer, whilst very different, glows with contrasting plausibility. This may be Close’s show but he excels in commanding the overwhelming stage mechanics. Dillon doesn’t have much opportunity to shine but takes on the character and convinces of her persistence to make it in an industry already lived in by her family, and the harmonies between her and Xavier are stunning.
Like a train-wreck or a horrifying piece of gossip drawing out in front of you, Close’s story is deliciously addictive. When she isn’t on stage, Desmond’s neurotic insanity is all you crave and it is the madness that her face, voice, everything evokes that halts anything else around you. She truly believes it when she off-handily reports “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small” or that she isn’t making a comeback – it’s a “return”. The fragility Close has in this role, rather than the idiotic believer in astrology or the monster that will not let people leave her, including her first husband, is what makes this production all so special. This isn’t just about seeing Glenn Close a Hollywood actress on stage, it’s about Norma Desmond, shining again, finally.
Sunset Boulevard is playing the London Coliseum until 7 May. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website.
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith