Melbourne Theatre Company’s hugely successful North By Northwest is set to make it’s much anticipated return to the stage early next year. Set to adorn the expansive State Theatre, the play is expected to reach the dizzying heights of its brilliant debut, selling out every single show and receiving rave reviews.
The play is, of course, adapted from the classic 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason. Credit here goes to the incredibly talented Carolyn Burns who admits to the whole thing being initially just a little bit scary.
” I believe anyone asked to adapt such an iconic thriller would have feelings of trepidation. The initial challenge was the sheer physicality of the constantly changing locations, not to mention those scary mountaineering moments at the end of the story. So the design needed to be sorted from the beginning. And it was also vitally important to estimate cast numbers as well. You simply can’t write a script for stage without being aware of how many actors you can have, or will need.”
“This initial planning involved a great deal of discussion, and then experimentation, with both Simon Phillips (director) and Josh Burns, (audio/visual artist) as we attempted to devise ways of solving some of the more complex movie moments via a variety of simple theatrical devices.”
“Once you get the style sorted, it gives you a secure base to work from. For me, I wanted the thriller aspect of shadowy government espionage to be a major theme and highlighted from the beginning of the play. And I used another classic Hitchcock film ‘Rear Window’ to set up that initial theme of spying.”
Burns admits that when writing for the stage she always assume some of the audience may not know the original work, so that means that she sees her job as starting from the beginning, making sure the plot, the characters, the shape and structure is as clear as is needed. Burns believes it’s important to create characters the audience can identify with and whose own decisions and passions drive the story forward.
“I like some confusion as well, and the thrill of leading an audience (especially in North by Northwest) on a journey of discovery, working out who’s who, is also part of my enjoyment.”
“I always imagine that during the time I’m researching and adapting any great story, the original writer, (in this case, Earnest Lehman) along with his characters, move rather politely into a small part of my brain, and hover. And I truly respect them. I do sometimes change a character or sub plot for theatrical reasons, and I get the occasionally nudge if they think I’ve ignored what they believe to be an important theatrical moment. It’s funny, but as soon as the script is finished, they just good naturedly disappear back into the literary ether. So thank you Ernest!”
Burns’ partner in crime (and life partner) is director Simon Phillips who is the other driving force behind the show. Prior to North By Northwest the pair hadn’t worked together for 10 years but the excitement of, and passion for, the project was enough to bring the previous collaborators together.
” Carolyn and I both love it and it was a nice chance for us to work together again,” Phillips says. ” I think the film is such a perfect and audacious combination of styles. The theatricality of it, the choreographic nature of the way it’s put together. Hitchcock planned so meticulously that his films have quite a studied feeling by today’s standards, which make them ripe for theatrical adaptation. Of course North By Northwest also has those iconic sequences that don’t exactly reek of the theatre, but it’s safe to say that those represented a particularly exciting temptation.”
Anyone who knows Hitchcock’s amazingly intricate film, will understand that the show comes with a great number of challenges but, for Phillips, it was important that the show have a ‘low tech’ feel albeit using high tech resources.
“It had to all feel ‘made’ in front of the audience,” he explains. “If you’re adapting a film and using film, it has to have a point of difference, or I think you’re just conceding defeat. I wanted the audience to see the film being made on stage in front of them, so obviously the hardest task was resolving the ‘puppetry’. We spent many, many hours developing the details of the miniatures and their incumbent ‘green screen’ lighting. The fact that we chose to make one screen red and one blue to reflect the cold war themes only added to our woes!”
Like the film, the play demands that the chemistry between the leading actors is vital. The chemistry between Matt Day and Amber McMahon is palpable and just right. For Phillips that chemistry is also about capturing the period style wittily and yet with integrity, which both of them do superbly.
The search for actors can be a daunting task for any director. McMahon, (whose work Phillips has long admired) did the first workshop and just nailed it “… so I was always looking to find her equal for Roger,” states Phillips. ” I’d worked with Matt before, and he’s an immensely funny guy personally, which seemed to me central to pulling off that character. But I’d only seen him do his classic ‘low status’ comedy, so I asked him to come in to read with Amber and test his ‘high style’. He had a flawless sense of it and, as you say, they just ‘fitted’ together.”
Having been privileged to view North By Northwest, I can attest to the many, many moments of sheer delight and excitement it brought to myself and others around. Favourite moments were too plentiful to count and some still resonate to this day. The film/stage device was sheer brilliance and an astounding success.
Says Phillips: “The two different elements of the production probably come together most in the Mount Rushmore chase, with the culmination of the live-action camera work and the cast throwing furniture around. But I love the initial meetings between Roger and Eve too, the script is so witty there, and occasionally there’s a piece of staging I’m quite proud of – the title sequence and the phone booth sequence where the lights ‘pan’ along the booths to link Eve and Leonard. And the tarmac sequence with the industrial fans. But look, we just had fun – highly disciplined fun of course – and I think that communicates to the audience.”
The box office smash, North By Northwest, comes to the State Theatre in 2016