The 39 Steps is a farce adapted by an actor (cum comedian and playwright) from the 1915 adventure novel and the 1935 thriller film. While John Buchan's novel was a great success and read by soldiers in the First World War trenches, it is the Alfred Hitcock film that remains most acclaimed.
Patrick Barlow, in his kind of mad homage to Hitchcock, presents a play that would stretch the friendship of many – 4 actors play the entire 1935 film's cast – that's somewhere between 100 and 150 roles! Sounds like an improv session with Robin Williams on speed to me but director Justin Stephens has this wacky Monty Pythonesque piece of work completely under control….or has he?!
The 39 Steps, as adapted by Patrick Barlow, has played in The West End and on Broadway but has not had a lot of stage exposure here. Can you talk a little about this play and what it is that drew you to it?
I had come across this play quite by accident online. I had no idea it was based on a film or that it had any relationship to Alfred Hitchcock. I had decided that I wanted to either be in the play or direct it based only on the premise of 4 actors attempting to do the work of dozens and it utilized old fashioned theatrical techniques to achieve it. I'm sure that there are companies that would like to stage the show, and no doubt many will. When I first looked at the script and the concept I immediately was excited and frightened. I definitely had a moment when I thought that it might be too hard to produce to the level that I would like to see it.
Unlike the Hitchcock film, this script is played for laughs. Can you outline some of the challenges that this script delivers in terms of the requirement that 4 actors play the parts of all of the characters found in he original 1935 film.
Well it's interesting that when you first hear about that 4 actors play all the parts you think that means it's an even spread across the cast. What is written is that one actor plays the hero, one female plays 3 parts, and two other male performers do everything else. It's those two actors who present several significant challenges. There's quick changes from one character to another, multiple accents, physical comedy, all done at faster than farce pace.
Given this requirement, what was the audition process like in terms of what skills you were particularly looking for from the auditioning actors?
My first thought when considering casting was that I needed great actors. By utilizing top talent I knew I had the best chance of presenting quality "hamming" as well as hitting the right notes in terms of story telling. The slap stick and speed I wanted to create in the show meant that I need to see from auditionees their ability to quickly move from one character to another while changing accents and changing costumes. It made for lengthy audition process. It was made more lengthy because I had made a commitment to myself that I would not put on the show unless the right cast could not be found.
How important is the lighting and audio component to this type of play? And what sort of atmosphere are you hoping to capture with the lighting and audio components?
The play essentially is both a parody and a homage to Hitchcock's most popular films, so there is immediately an expectation that you will see and hear familiar references. Sound and lighting working together is critical in attempting to present a cinematic quality on stage. Also, it is used to almost become a character in it's own right to support the comedy and action on stage. I started to think about the sound very early on and after a little while I had amassed a significant part of the audio for the show. I wanted to ensure that a sound or music from an iconic Hitchcock piece of cinema was not simply plonked into a scene. The aim was to have the audio fit with the story so well that you almost thought it was written especially for the show. The lighting challenge is significant for this show. Firstly the amount of scenes is matched by the number of scenes from the film, and the look needs to both drive the action but also reference Hitchcock's famous styles. Aside form utilizing sound and light as a method of scene change I wanted it to underscore the frenetic pace of a good thriller, and to trigger memories of an audiences favourite Hitchcock movie.
I can only imagine how much fun the rehearsal process has been. Is this an apt description?
I am privileged to be working with an amazing cast. They have made me laugh over and over again at the same jokes I've heard a gazillion times. Because this is an all or nothing production we are often pushing the limits and that can create some frustrations. But that quickly vanishes when we achieve what we set out to achieve. The hard work is all worth it.
Can you discuss some of the more difficult elements of the play's demands and how these were handled during the rehearsal process?
When you read the script you discover that there is virtually no mention of how to stage the show. It's almost purely dialogue with references to being in a flat, on the Scottish moors, or simply "the plane crashes". The great gift of the play is that you can represent these scenes any way you like. That's complete freedom. It's also can result in complete madness. Before I began the rehearsal process I transposed the script with all the staging elements written in, and some blocking, to give all involved a picture of what it was supposed to look like. I wanted to minimize any invention of these things during rehearsal, because there simply isn't enough time to do that. One sequence took 4 hours of rehearsal to just block. That sequence only goes for about a minute!
How personally rewarding has the whole process been? And what are a couple of things that stand out as personal achievements for yourself?
We performed this production at Lilydale and have the good fortune to present it at Heidelberg, and that means we can reap the rewards this show gives and gives all over again. For me, it's been an astonishing experience. I've been able to work with some extremely talented people who have trusted the mad vision enough to bring to the stage a great show. One unexpected outcome that I personally love is that we had multiple repeat audience members. We've had people come back with friends and family of all ages. I've been astounded by the wide appeal this show has.
How would you describe this play to someone who had never heard about it before reading this article?
A book turned into a film turned into a play turned inside out! A hilarious live show that is a genuine thrill ride!
What is your hope that audiences take with them after viewing the show?
When I see a play I want to see an element, a performance, a moment of something that I haven't seen before. That's a big ask in today's world. I want to wow an audience and make them laugh themselves stupid at the same time. If the audience walks out feeling like they have totally escaped for 2 hours and they like theatre a little bit more, then I'm happy.
And finally, what is next for you?
I thought I might try some sleep. However, it appears I'm jumping straight into another show, this time as an actor.
The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow and directed by Justin Stephens at Heidelberg Theater Company 36 Turnham Ave Rosanna. Season: September 15 to October 1, 2011. Weeknights & Saturdays at 8pm – Matinees Sundays 18th & 25 Sept at 2pm. Bookings: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~htc/booking.html