Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is one of those films which dwells in the collective cultural consciousness as a series of memorable images or sequences – the crop-duster chase, the
Mount Rushmore finale. Described
Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” the film has now become a stage
production under the guidance of Simon Phillips for the Melbourne Theatre Company. And it is every
bit as thrilling and audacious as you would expect.
Adapted by Carolyn Burns from the screenplay by Ernest Lehman, MTC’s North by Northwest remains almost entirely faithful to the film. But whereas in other productions this could be seen as a disservice, whereby it slavishly seeks to replicate its filmic predecessor, here Burns, Phillips, the cast and crew all approach their task with relish and glee, and the results, while serious, never take themselves too seriously, giving us a magical new version of Hitchcock and Lehman’s thrilling tale of mistaken identity.
The set – designed by Phillips and Nick Schlieper (who also lit the production) – is a squareish three-sided cage which opens at the rear to reveal a projection screen, while two similarly cage-like tabs fly in from above. While this gives the production a fluidity and enables scenes to pass with something akin to cinematic cutting, it is also entirely gestural – along with a few moving items of set, like tables and chairs, a bookcase, lounge, and bed, everything is left up to us and our (hopeful) knowledge of the film to complete the circle, to revel in the theatre’s capacity to excite the imagination.
And what exciting imaginations Phillips and Schlieper have. Using the resources of live video projection to their best and fullest use, AV designer Josh Burns has created memorable evocations of the film’s theatrically-impossible set-pieces – crop-duster,
Mount Rushmore – using little more than the techniques
cinema itself has used for decades. There’s a low-fi ingenuity to these moments
which only makes them more thrilling. By the time we get to the thrilling
conclusion and Mount Rushmore appears, even though it might seem slightly too
silly an approach for the otherwise serious play, they’d more than earned it
with their fidelity in nearly every other beat. Other memorable moments include
the train sequence (little more than a few carefully-placed tables and doors), the
auction, the UN sequence, and the opening “credits,” complete with Hitchcockian
‘cameo’. And what would North by
Northwest be without Bernard Herrmann’s thrilling score? It, too, makes
several appearances at key moments as part of Ian McDonald’s sound design
which, like the set and projections, is expertly timed and executed, and is almost
Corralling a “cast of thousands” onto the Arts Centre’s Playhouse stage is no easy feat, but Phillips manages to do it with just a dozen actors who change costumes and characters with a rapidity not normally seen outside of big-budget musicals. As Roger O Thornhill, Matt Day plays the role with a panache and debonair charm not dissimilar to that of Cary Grant’s, while Amber McMahon is elegant and aloof as Eve Kendall. The rest of the cast – who almost literally play a dozen roles each – are all strong, and there is never a sense of overplaying, caricature, or lack of professionalism among them; special mention to Tony Llewellyn-Jones’ Professor, and the four ‘presidents’, Nicholas Bell, Justin Stewart Cotta, John Leary, and Lucas Stibbard. Dressed in Esther Marie Hayes’ rich costumes – largely in-period, with a dash of the contemporary – this is one sharply dressed crowd.
There’s enough ingenuity and theatricality on display here to last you a very long time (not to mention far too many MacGuffins), and it’s a delight to watch. While undisputedly one of the drawcards of this year’s season, the Melbourne Theatre Company have also programmed exciting new Australian and international works which shouldn’t be overshadowed by this production’s reach. The fact that they are all as strong as each other can only be a good thing.