Monday, March 21, 2022

North by North West

By special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures and the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), NORTH BY NORTHWEST, adapted by Carolyn Burns, based on the Alfred Hitchcock film, written by Ernest Lehman, at the Lyric Theatre in the Star Casino complex. 9th March - 3rd April.

Alfred Hitchcock had decided he needed a change of style and, particularly, after the twisted Freudian themes and motifs of his then disparaged VERTIGO - released in 1958 (it, belatedly has become  regarded as a Hitchcockian Masterpiece) - he began a treatment of THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE, based on a novel by Hammond Innes with screenwriter Ernest Lehman. It didn't work out. They quit on it. Being under contract they had to produce something for M.G.M. , so the Cold War suspense thriller, romantic-comedy, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, gradually crystallised.

It seems that Hitchcock had collected in his spare time a glad-bag of scenes and images he would love to see filmed. Taking that cue from their creative conversations Lehman went on a field trip to pick up some location colour from Hitchcock's 'dreams' and after visiting the UN headquarters in New York, taking a trip on the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago, checking in at the Ambassador East Hotel, with a park carer taking a scramble up the side of Mt Rushmore, among other adventures. He returned home and at their first re-meeting sat down with Hitchcock to put a screenplay together with what amounted to be an itinerary without a plot. 

Together they put their hero into a predicament and worked out how to get him out of the trouble he found himself in. Then he was dropped into new trouble and once again they had to solve how to extricate him. On and on it went with the question "Now what?" always being posed and explored to solve. "I never knew where I was going,' said Lehman.

'As a result ," Mr Lehman tells us, "Everything was written in increments: moving a little bit forward, then a little bit more, a page at a time. "Okay, you've got him out of Grand Central Station. Now he's on the train, now what? Well, there's no female character in it yet. I better put Eve on the train. But what should I do with her? ..." Always asking, "What do I do next?" So, in the end, the audience never knows what's coming next, because (we) didn't either."

NORTH BY NORTHWEST is one of Hitchcock's most successful films: in fact, an instant success that has been maintained over 60 years of cinematic life:  a suspense thriller of misidentification of an innocent bystander, Roger O. Thornhill - a classic Cold War paranoia, which Hitchcock had used many times before, (the two versions of THE MAN THAT KNEW TOO MUCH, for instance - 1934 & 1956) - that ensures a chase across the United States unravelling a double, double spy plot engaging with knives, planes and guns, bullets both live and blanks, resulting, of course, with the reveal of a micro-film that both sides want, hidden in the rounded tummy of an expensive art piece! 

Add to the spine of this narrative adventure fantasy a script that instead of straight dialogue is mostly, really, repartee, or if you prefer, foreplay - a long verbal flirtation with lots of meaningful looks - and you have a mixture of genre that is irresistible. Physical adventure, intrigue and lots of humour, of innuendo laden with charm - charm and deliberate restraint. The original filmic casting was Cary Grant, the greatest of the Hollywood comic charmers at this time and under his spell Eva Marie Saint, his co-star, rose to the occasion to be his equal, being provocatively charming, right back. The audience no matter their sexual identification swooned as these two handsome figures 'battled' it out. This film has always been a favourite and hasn't aged one bit in its ability to tantalise and please its audience. Suspense and longing smiles. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is critically regarded as Hitchcock's lightest film.

Most of us in this Opening Night audience knew the film and so we arrived at the Lyric Theatre knowing what happens to the innocent Roger Thornhill (David Campbell), and how he and the other characters are extricated from one trouble spot to another. The "What next?' we already knew. So, the "HOW" in the Lyric theatre is not so much the thrill of the plot twists of escape but rather the "HOW" are they going to bring certain famous sequences in the film to life on stage. You know, HOW are they going to solve the extraordinary stalking and chase of the hero by a crop duster plane, spitting bullets at him. The climb and chase across the Mount Rushmore sculptures. This is the the thrill tension of the anticipated stage version of NORTH BY NORTHWEST for us fans of Hitchcock. For the audience seeing the story for the first time they are having a double wonder of a production. The Lehman adventure story and the cleverness of the playful storytelling techniques  - the respectful, stylish mashing of actor with Audio-Visual tools., it turns out. Of the genius of Hitchcock and of the team of creatives working with Simon Phillips.

In this production the physical solution of the HOW are they going to do it is where laughter of surprise and wonder at the audacious theatricality of the methods employed becomes an assured source of holding this night together for all the audience: those who are familiar and those who are not. This staged version of NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a rich night of fun and joy.

The adaptation of this screenplay by Carolyn Burns under the direction of Simon Philips, from the resources of the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), is adroit in managing all of the main events. The play text is a true adaptation of the original - it is respectfully faithful. It begins with a set Design (Simon Phillips and Nick Schlieper), of a ghostly white skeletal cage-like structure of parallel lines both horizontal and vertical across the back of the stage and coming down both sides, 'wings', of the stage - left and right. The production begins with a boldly tongue-in-cheek recreation of the Saul Bass opening credits offering an inventive solution that in doing so, announces a restrained comic tone, right from the start, that is then, remarkably sustained throughout the entire of the production. 

The wonderful comic balance that Simon Phillips achieves is one that has a cosy period identification that never pushes into farce or vulgarity.  There is no Sydney Oxford Street Camp going on in this production and the respect given the source material never wavers into parody and one trusts, instinctively, that there is not going to be a musical 'drag' interpolation going to be featured in this storytelling creation, unlike the Kip Williams' offers in works like his CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF***, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY or, believe it or not, DEATH OF A SALESMAN***. Anything Goes when Mr Williams or his Assistant Artists takes hold of the Classic repertoire - Sydney's audiences' penchant to demand superficial style over substance - to celebrate it with standing ovations and applause - seems to give the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Mr Williams and his assistants licence to indulge its audiences (and themselves, it seems.)

The colour palette of the Lighting (Nick Schlieper), is that slightly underlit warmth that Francis Ford Coppola and his cinematographer, Gordon Willis, captured so beautifully in THE GODFATHER trilogy - and is cosy, safe, 'homey'. Further, sonically, the famous Bernard Herrmann score from the original film has been given permission to be used and its familiar, propulsive Spanish dance rhythm known as the fandango is awoken, recalled, and our, probably, subliminal memory, unconsciously use it to support  Mr Phillips' imaginative solutions, joyfully, to assist in accepting the manner of the choices made by the production artists. Other Composition and Soundscape are harmoniously created by Ian McDonald.

On the Set, there are in each of the wing branches two cubicles where the cast using a pointed, live camera 'play' with toys - tools - to project images on a large screen on the back wall. The images are made up of comic toys and child-like illustrations that ground the feel of the 'art' into the games some of us have created in our bedrooms, as kids, getting out our crayons or paint brushes with a tone colour of the Hollywood technicolour of the '50's to make the background images of our own stories, whilst we also built/organised: toy planes on a stick that will crash into a toy bus and catch fire, or a train set moved on tracks past the camera to be projected in real time onto a screen. (Memories of the work of the Australian company, MY DARLING PATRICIA'S came to call.) And, just wait until you see the solution to creating the climatic scramble of our heroes across the Mount Rushmore monument. It is MTC artistic integrity, not STC vulgarity holding it all together. Ingenious and amusing in its wonderous cheeky concept. The Audio Visual design of newspaper headlines etc by Josh Burns also uses techniques of the old Hollywood studios that ramps up the visual support for the storytelling.

On the floor of the stage, chairs and some prop lounges (on wheels) are wheeled about to create images of a car, taxi, a train carriage, the interior of an art auction, bedrooms and foyers of hotels etc. The very busy choreographic control by the company of actors of the props for the scenes have a tight rein of efficiency and balletic elan.

A company of 12 actors create to what appears to be a cast of hundreds. Berynn Schwerdt, Dorje Swallow, Kaen Chan, Lachlan Woods, Nicholas Bell, Sharon Millerchip, Wadih Dona, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline Craig and Douglas Hansell. David Campbell as the hero, Roger Thornhill, is the only actor with one character to maintain. Everybody else swiftly shape shift with the assistance of Costume (Esther Marie Hayes) and wig, make-up. It seemed to me that Ms Hayes work is exemplary in solving the quick changes that are necessary for the production's fluidity but it is at the expense of a good consistent period look. There is however no real excuse for the fit and cut of Mr Campbell's suit that more often than not looks like 'a bag of fruit' than the tailored serenity of the original. This Thornhill looks flustered and baggy in the suit he dons rather than in neat control. This Thornhill does not support the 'coolness' the confidence of the original by a long, long shot. (I read that Cary Grant had seven identical versions of his suit to maintain the character's temperament visually throughout the shoot of the film. Not so, alas, for Mr Campbell. The film went way over budget to complete! - that set of suits, perhaps?! The MTC, probably did not have the budget.)

Amber McMahon, plays the heroine, Eve, with a wig that looks like the blonde straw that appeared in M.G.M.'s THE WIZARD OF OZ, perched on the top of her head, hair-sprayed to what looked like a lethal stiffness of curled sharp edges. Ms McMahon, as well, never quite manages to make her Grace-Kelly period 'costumes' look like 'clothes' that her character has chosen to wear. The suits are okay but the 'cocktail' look not so well accomplished. Fortunately, Ms McMahon has a personal style that almost excuses the uncomfortable look in those required petticoats.

All of the actors have the difficulty of playing roles meant to be captured by a camera and hence there is a need to theatrically illustrate the subtleties at a scale that can reach into the back rows of the theatre. It can add a coarsening to the comedy of Lehmann and Hitchcock's screenplay, none more, for instance, than in the famous train repartee between Thornhill and Eve Kendall. Ms McMahon mostly succeeds with this problem though sometimes she treads to the very edge of vulgarity with choices like the throw of her legs in the bed scene in the train. It gets a laugh but almost prostitutes Eve's character. It is on the edge and one can see the temptation that Ms McMahon is resisting - for the bigger comic gesture to score a laugh is a fairly familiar choice employed by Ms McMahon in her past work offers. It is an admirable "battle' that we can gauge Ms  McMahon is having to subdue that usual comic reflex trait, to have us identify her Eve Kendall as a saintly sophisticated operator.

Bert LaBonte is a smooth operator,  seductive as the villain Phillip Van Damm. He is all that we could wish for, with the memory of James Mason oozing into our consciousness of recognition in some of the Labonte stylish body language and a capacity to wear his clothing as if it were tailored just for him.

 Genevieve Lemon is consummate in her comic invention of Roger's mother, Mrs Dinah Thornhill, and manages to create a mordant wit for her many other minor tasks. 

Tony Llwellyn-Jones pulls out his usual fussy physical choices to make the 'Professor', they are hardly distinguishable from his performance as Pickering in the Julie Andrews production of MY FAIR LADY***of a few years ago. 

Dorje Swallow and Lachlan Woods (Leonard) make an impression in the ensemble work.

The vocal work of the company, employing a familiar '50's mid-Atlantic Hollywood dialect to create period and consistency helps enormously for us to enter the game of the theatre with them. It's a fake Studio dialect, but it is instantly recognisable and fun.

David Campbell who is more often seen in Musicals on stage (or, as a host on daytime television), plays straight down the line in this play, with some subdued comic flair and a genuine truth with his own pleasant aura of a nice guy projecting a dignified restraint necessary for us to believe the dilemmas and interactions of his beleaguered hero, Roger Thornhill. 

Cary Grant began his career as a comic acrobat in the Music Halls of London and Vaudeville Theatres in New York and once he began making strides in the film industry in Hollywood it was his well trained physical body language that assisted him to create a musical rhythm for all his work. Watch his physical timing in the Screwball Comedies of the 30's and 40's to see what I mean expressly. (Charles Chaplain and Burt Lancaster are two other athletic bodies that made distinctive physical impressions on screen) Bernard Herrmann of his choice of the Spanish fandango for the main thematics of his score for NORTH BY NORTHWEST, didn't seem to make sense for a movie that takes place entirely in America, but Herrmann had a genius for music embodying a movie's psychological DNA. Herrmann's inspiration became clear when he explained that his use of the fandango was inspired by Grant's "Astaire-like agility," which was never more apparent than in the crop-dusting sequence, where he sprints through the cornfield like an Olympic athlete. It is this physical agility, the suave movement of the body, the instinctive body memory reach that seduces us, along with his turn-of-phrase, the witty quip, the musical cadence and timing that distinguishes Grant's Thornhill. 

Throughout the huge responsibility of this very big role - Thornhill is in in almost every scene of the play - the wit of the text is assiduously available within Mr Campbell's 'tool box' and he seems to have worked hard to require the disciplines to make it work, but his characterisation is undermined, relatively, in the lack of consistent strength of skill in the physical life. Mr Campbell, does not persuade us, of his Olympic stamina, he does not seem to appear to have the "Astaire physical agility," or an apt state of physical fitness to employ as part of his characterisation. Mr Campbell is pleasantly charming, and it is that identification of his own inimitable self that we identify, (his morning television hosting) that helps us to carry him over the line and make his Thornhill work. We like David Campbell and we want to make his performance as Roger Thornhill to work as well. It does.

When I was a kid one of my passions was collecting the editions of a comic book called CLASSIC COMICS. These comics were coloured illustrated versions of Classic movies e.g. ROB ROY, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH. I used to hang out for the publication of each one in the local newspaper store, along with my Disney Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comics. This Simon Phillips' production has the coloured illustrated warmth of those childhood memories of the 1950's comic. NORTH BY NORTHWEST in the Lyric Theatre, has the same visual radiating comfort as those Classic Comic books, with the added bonus of a restrained tongue-in-cheek humour of the knowingly theatrical solutions used to bring us, on the stage, this Cold War Chase Thriller. 

This production is a cartoon for adults and for their children as well, I suspect. Nothing offensive here, but a clever and advantageous use of 'oldie-worldie' Audio-Visual techniques that tells a story with clarity of drama and wit. The storytelling is front and centre here, unlike the STC's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, where the Audio-Visuals and the Director are the star of the evening, burying the one actor so that the storytelling of Oscar Wilde's story becomes lost in the self-conscious employment of modern techniques of image making. 

The actors in this Melbourne Theatre Company production are permitted to be the storytellers of Ernest Lehman and Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST. 

The actors are primary. 

Under the behest of Simon Phillips they reveal respect and trust in the original work and triumph in a most delightful way.

N.B. A resource for this post: 

1. CARY GRANT : A Brilliant Disguise, by Scott Eyman - Simon and Schuster - 2020.

2. The very good notes in the program - unusually interesting and informative.

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