(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian 1/19/; Photo: Going on … Gena Rowlands in Opening Night. Photograph: Alamy.)
One of many tantalising theatre shows cancelled last year by the pandemic was The Second Woman, a 24-hour-long production at the Young Vic, London, in which Ruth Wilson was to repeatedly perform the same scene with a succession of 100 actors. This exploration of gender and power was inspired by John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night, about a troubled star’s out-of-town tryouts for a Broadway-bound play called The Second Woman.
After months of watching stage productions on screen while venues are closed, from archive NT Lives to lockdown live streams, I returned to Opening Night to start a new series looking at the ways cinema has depicted the world of theatre. I’m avoiding some of the more obvious titles (Birdman, All About Eve, movies based on plays or musicals such as A Chorus Line) and will be including a range of international choices over the next few weeks to see how film-makers have depicted the theatrical experience.
Cassavetes is hailed for ushering in a new style of American independent movies with naturalistic classics including Shadows and Faces, but he was no stranger to ambitious theatre. Within a few years of Opening Night, he was staging a trilogy of plays in Los Angeles with the same lead actor, his wife Gena Rowlands.
When we first see Rowlands in Opening Night, she is waiting to go on stage, calming her nerves with a nip of booze and a last drag on a cigarette. Cassavetes captures the jittery energy behind the scenes as well as the intense sensation of simply being on stage: when the curtain goes up, we feel the glare, echo and volume of the experience, the sheer nowness of it all. This is immediately juxtaposed with a rather dreary perspective from the stalls, where a fixed camera shows the uninspiring drama in which Myrtle stars.
What Cassavetes does brilliantly is present brief moments that exist somewhere between the private and public as we see the actor, Myrtle Gordon (the superb Rowlands), entering and leaving the stage, switching in and out of character, waiting for cues while hidden from an audience who loom in the background. This is what I’d love to see captured in more streams of theatre productions: multiple cameras used not just to shoot the drama but also showing actors immediately before and after their scenes.