North by Northwest (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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It was suggested to me recently that if Shakespeare could have put jet planes on stage then he almost certainly would have. And I think that’s probably true, or true enough. His ambition is double hinged: to say that all the world’s a stage is to say at the same time that a stage is all the world. Everything that happens in the great business of life can be done again in a theatre, whether it’s the Battle of Agincourt or a crop duster plunging into a tank truck.

North By Northwest may not be Shakespeare, but there is a sort of Jacobean aspiration in this Melbourne Theatre Company attempt to put it on the stage. Alfred Hitchcock’s super-slick 1959 spy movie, with Cary Grant as a Manhattan ad man caught up in a case of mistaken identity, is as famous for its artful cinematic vastness – its Mount Rushmore and its Illinois cornfields — as it is for it genre thrills, mesmerising fast talk and Hollywood romance.

So it’s not an obvious candidate for adaptation; and indeed this is apparently the first authorised stage version anywhere in the world. For director Simon Phillips — a former MTC artistic director — and writer Carolyn Burns, the challenge is to how to retain a sense of seriousness and adventure and not surrender entirely to farce. And they make a good fist of it; although in the second half the play does start to feel more like a lampoon than anything else.

It has a booming sound design, with original compositions by Ian McDonald, references to Bernard Hermann’s original score and plenty of movie sound effects. Nick Schlieper’s set (and lighting) looks something like a Bauhaus birdcage, which seems a bit lateral for North by Northwest. Perhaps it’s an architectural tribute to Chicago’s Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his grids of steel and glass?

Matt Day’s imitation of Cary Grant as the harried Roger Thornhill is closely modelled on the real thing. He does have a good deal of flash and smoothness, but the romance and repartee with Amber McMahon —  playing Eve Kendall, the blonde who turned spy because “she had nothing better to do that weekend” — is rather flat and even a bit ridiculous. Not enough has been done here to account for Eve’s specifically cinematic attraction.

Matt Hetherington is the villain, the part played by James Mason in the film. He looks dapper, but without Mason’s effortless old world charm. We do, however, get the necessary hint of sexual jealousy, the chink in this evil spymaster’s armour of suaveness. Lachlan Woods is also very good as the villain’s cold-eyed right-hand man —  somewhere between an assassin and a Bond Street art dealer.

The cast is large, with most of its 12 playing multiple roles; but in fact they do their best work as stagehands. Instead of marvelling at Hitchcock’s high-polish auteur style, we marvel at the rough-and-ready way that special effects are produced for us live on stage. This involves a lot of digital video. In open booths on either side of the stage, we watch the actors pushing around small models — of trains, planes and automobiles — in front of fixed cameras and even toy sets. These images are then projected live onto a big screen behind the action, complete with chroma key special effects, to create a kind of hybrid theatre-cinema.

All of this projected material could have been pre-recorded, and made to look a lot neater, but the adventure — and often the comedy — is in witnessing the process of creation. This is a sense of wonderment peculiar to the theatre: we see how the trick is done, but we’re still enchanted.

And there are plenty more stage tricks, too. For instance, the play opens with a charming recreation of the film’s famous title sequence, with the actors running around forming the words manually, setting the tone of the show somewhere between a send-up and an homage.

Indeed, it’s quite exciting, at least at first, waiting to see how they’ll solve each new scenic problem. But it’s an ironic sort of excitement, separate to our interest in the plot. We’re really watching two plays at once. North by Northwest is both a whimsical journey from screen to the stage, very tongue-in-cheek, and an earnest attempt to tell a gripping yarn. At first both aspects of the production are equally engrossing, but something happens about half way through, beginning with the iconic crop duster and cornfields scene. Simon Phillips hasn’t managed to capture anything of the original’s strange menace, and this seems to tip the balance decisively toward parody. After that it’s never so mesmerising.

But the idea is right, as the recent and immensely popular adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps proved. While I’m not sure if this production will be the international success that the MTC is hoping, there is no doubt that audiences do want to see theatre that takes on the movies, which strips off the cinematic mask and shows us how the story is told. There is world enough on stage for the classics of Hollywood, crop dusters, jet planes and all.

[box]North By Northwest is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until June 20. Main image by Jeff Busby.[/box]

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