North by Northwest

North by Northwest
Adapted by Carolyn Burns. Presented by Adelaide Festival Centre. Produced by Kay + McLean Productions. Directed by Simon Phillips. December 29, 2018 to January 20, 2019

There were literally fireworks for the Adelaide opening night of North by Northwest, a play based on Hitchcock’s film. The excitement of New Year’s Eve was present in the audience of this well-travelled and well-received production. This latest incarnation for the stage is fast-paced, stylish and clever.

The production uses theatrical magic to recreate the film/stage set. It could be described as a play with a screen. The tricks of green screen technology, or in this case red and blue screen trickery are used to create the backdrops for the action of the story. This includes the classic scene where the reluctant hero, Roger O. Thornhill is chased across the open fields of America by a full-sized bi-plane. The best of these special effects for me was probably the creation of the Presidents’ heads for the scenes set in and on Mount Rushmore.  Credit for this must go to Josh Burns, the audio-visual designer.

Sound effects are also produced in full view of the audience and lighting effects are created with hand-held lamps and with their operators on trolleys, in addition to the usual high-end lighting that an audience expects from a big production.

The score and soundscape was composed by Ian McDonald and makes good use of Bernard Herrmann’s original film music. The music and soundscape are an essential part of the production, underlining and emphasising the action as well as creating some of the suspense and surprise, such as one expects from a Hitchcock film.

The cast play many roles, switching costumes and props, accents and physicality with impeccable speed, timing and consistency. The train station was one of my favourites for this with a constant stream of characters crossing the stage, all with their own agendas and need to catch the train. Costumes designed by Esther Marie Hayes immediately set the era and with mainly black, grey, white and brown tones, pay tribute to the era of black and white films.

The scene changes are a joy to watch and the set, designed by Simon Phillips and Nick Schlieper, is sharp, with clean lines. Most importantly, it works well, providing a balcony, the frontage of a skyscraper, a train cabin and a variety of rooms and spaces. The props are simple and effective and their multiple uses mean there is no time wasted during scene changes; a sofa is also a taxi and tables become the rocky frontage of Mount Rushmore.

Matt Day, who plays Thornhill, and Amber McMahon, as Eve Kendall are true to their Hollywood predecessors and there are plenty of vignettes that match the scenes from the film. The play is an excellent example of the power of an ensemble of talented actors working as a team.

I have given a lot of praise and credit to the technical side of this production, because without the technical and theatrical wizardry, this would be an impossible play to put on the stage. The film clips produce the winding roads for the car chase, the puppetry and ‘green’ screen technology provide the main chase sequences and the moving set creates the variety of spaces with a speed and efficiency that assists in the development and continuation of the breakneck speed of the story.

However, what this wizardry and production did not produce for me was a drama from which I walked away thinking about how the story and situation had effected the humans involved. North by North by Northwest was a mixture of homage to the Hollywood of Hitchcock, film stars and style and a comedic theatrical deconstruction of suspense. The result of this is an action-packed, narrative-driven adventure, which seems to be aiming at but ultimately failing to reconcile two opposing ideas, namely suspense and comedy. 

Hitchcock is about suspense, and being on the edge of one’s seat (think Psycho, think The Birds) but this production seemed to mix the moments of supposedly greatest suspense with slapstick. For me this was a disappointment and was the easier route rather than attempting the more difficult task of developing a production that would create the same tension and sense of suspense in a theatre audience that Hitchcock created for cinema audiences.

Sally Putnam

Photographer: Darren Thomas

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