Benito Di Fonzo
Sydney Morning Herald, July 10, 2008
Alfred Hitchcock's spy thriller film becomes a stage comedy - with four actors playing 139 roles.
"I don't like it when they come out all wicked at the beginning," says playwright Patrick Barlow of his villains. "I like it when they're played so that you think they're a perfectly nice English gentleman, terribly urbane and posh, and then slowly you realise that the guy's a terrible raving Nazi."
So it is that in Barlow's comic stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 spy thriller The 39 Steps, itself adapted from John Buchan's novel, he has used history to embellish Hitchcock's gentleman villain.
"I made him into one of those extreme right-wing English aristocrat Hitler appeasers," he says. "There was a movement with Lord Halifax and that lot that thought Hitler was quite a good bloke, [which] is all kept quiet in English history books."
The 39 Steps tells the story of Richard Hannay, played by Mark Pegler, who has a close encounter with a beautiful murdered spy and is pursued across the muddy Scottish moors before heading back to England to clear his name and foil the villain's dastardly plan. Hannay famously does all this while remaining unruffled and clean-shaven in his spotless three-piece tweed suit.
Helen Christinson, who plays the beautiful dead spy among other female leads in the show, says the now-peculiar style of 1930s British cinema provides much of the humour.
"As Australians we're very laid-back and the idea of the British stiff upper lip is quite comedic in a lot of ways," she says. "What's particularly lovely is that it's Brits laughing at themselves."
The idea of a comic adaptation of Hitchcock's classic was brought to Barlow by producers after his troupe, the National Theatre of Brent, staged award-winning epic adaptations of the Zulu wars and the Russian revolution with only two actors. Shortly after her death, it even dramatised the life of Lady Di.
"That was our most controversial production," Barlow says. "It was called Love Upon The Throne. [John Ramm] played Diana and I played Charles and the Queen and all the other characters."
For The 39 Steps, Barlow doubled his usual cast, to four actors, to play all 139 roles.
"As soon as I looked at the film I had this instinct that it would work great on stage, particularly because it was such a challenge ... a railway chase, the fourth bridge [scene] and the Scottish Highlands. I said, 'Let's do it with four people and just a packing case and a ladder so the actors are absolutely challenged to the hilt."'
Barlow is right about it being a challenge. The New York Times described it as a "tour de farce" but Christinson confirms that it's no picnic for the cast - herself, Pegler, Jo Turner and Russell Fletcher - to keep up with the multitude of characters they play, as well as changing their minimal set into everything from a moving train to the Scottish Highlands.
"We all have about 20 costume changes during the show," Christinson says. "As they're walking through the downstage entrance a dresser is following, pulling off wigs and coats and putting on another wig and coat as they walk through the top entrance ... so literally it's a matter of seconds."
Barlow and director Maria Aitken knew the production would work best if the comedy was played as straight as the pleats in the hero's three-piece tweed.
"My obsession with this is to keep the style very innocent, very not-knowing," Barlow says. "They shouldn't know that they're funny, it should be played absolutely straight, very English."
The play also contains trainspotter moments for Hitchcock aficionados such as Bernhard Herrmann's original scores, references to other Hitchcock films and even the obligatory cameo by the big man himself, all done in what Barlow describes as "that kind of British, Pythonesque, Goons-type humour". So is it a spoof or a homage?
"It's a homage to the film, definitely, which is an absolutely brilliant piece of work and a wonderful style of cinema that you just don't get now. It's got a slickness and spirit and dash that is gone now. It's a very respectful homage, even though we do make a few jokes about it."
The 39 Steps
Sydney Opera House, Sydney
31 July 2008 to 17 August 2008
(02) 9250 7777