Much like the Hollywood star herself, Ava: The Secret Conversations is a visually striking and enigmatic affair. It’s written by and stars Elizabeth McGovern and is based on Peter Evans’s biography, which Ava Gardner collaborated on, but wouldn’t allow to be published in her lifetime. McGovern is best known for her starring role in Downton Abbey but it’s her experience as a lyricist that tells in a production that feels more like an album than a play; poetic and playful and rippling with elegant riffs on Ava’s life and the men who framed it.
Director Gaby Dellal has worked largely in film and, alongside projection specialists 59 Productions, has created a show that splices film and theatre together with finesse. The play unfolds in Ava’s London flat, where Peter and Ava meet to discuss her life. As the two hit upon important moments and men (including Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra), the flat’s walls slide, shuffle or drop away completely, and projected film reels and atmospheric backdrops transport us to a flurry of memorable times and places, many of which shimmer with a mysterious (sometimes threatening) sort of glamour.
Lots of the scenes are enclosed by big black frames that drop down in front of the stage and create small picture-box spaces, as if we’re peering through a camera lens. When powerful men speak (such as Peter’s agent, who keeps calling for stories of Sinatra’s penis), we often don’t see them – but only hear their voices booming from somewhere off stage. All this creates the powerful impression of omnipresent men lingering in the wings, picking and choosing how we view Ava’s story.
McGovern gradually grows in magnetism, starting out rather depleted (thanks to a number of strokes in Ava’s later life) but gradually beginning to straighten up and sparkle. The chemistry between McGovern and Anatol Yusef, who plays all the male roles, never quite burns and when their big fallout happens, it feels manufactured. But this is still a thoughtful and classy show, which shows a woman who remained resolutely herself (but always kept something back) as the men in her life looked for themselves – and lost themselves – in her dazzling glow.