Current Issue #488

Amber McMahon swept up in thrills of North by Northwest

Amber McMahon swept up in thrills of North by Northwest

Almost 60 years after its release, the cultural impact of Alfred Hitchcock’s genre-defining caper North By Northwest is as potent as ever.

All the suspense and intrigue of the 1959 classic North By Northwest have made the leap from silver screen to stage, where Adelaide-born actor Amber McMahon has enjoyed a front row seat.

“I remember my agent asking ‘does this interest you?’,” McMahon recalls of joining an initial workshop for the production several years ago. “I was like oh my god yes’. It’s one of my favourite films!”

A Helpmann Award winning – Flinders University graduate, McMahon’s career has seen her star in Windmill Theatre’s 2016 film Girl Asleep and spend several years with the Sydney Theatre Company. But it’s stepping into the shoes – and blonde wig – of Eva Marie Saint’s character Eve Kendall that has been a surprising constant over the years.

“[At first] I didn’t entertain the idea that I’d be considered for the role – I’m a brunette and not an obvious choice for Eva Marie Saint. But when I re-watched the film I just fell in love with it all over again. Just the lilts of her accent – it’s American but there’s a lot of musicality to it, that old-fashioned American where there’s something sophisticated and charming about it. I grew up with those films so I was able to reference a lot of that. There was something visceral about it, even though I had never done a role like it before.”

The adaptation has come a long way since those early workshops, having toured to the United Kingdom and Canada after its original Melbourne run before finally making its way to Adelaide this year with McMahon returning to the role opposite Matt Day, who slips on Cary Grant’s famous suit and tie as man-on-the-run Roger O. Thornhill. For McMahon and the cast, bringing the film to life means walking a tightrope between recreating the original iconic imagery and finding their own unique spark.

“It’s about tapping into the nostalgia,” she says. “People have fallen in love with the film so you want to tap into that feeling, but you don’t want to replicate or mimic performances. You have to find the heart and soul of the characters of the production you’re in, whatever alchemy of artists you’ve got in the room. But it’s a very, very faithful adaptation, [writer] Carolyn Burns has done a terrific job of translating the film to the stage. Design-wise it’s very much inspired by Saul Bass’ amazing opening credits, that wonderful modern geometric aesthetic. So it looks like a beautiful piece of 50s film but its more colourful and alive onstage.”

From the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s adaptation of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps to the success of musicals like Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding, audiences continue to be drawn to theatres to see big-screen stories reimagined – even ones they probably own on DVD at home. “They’re reminded of why they love the film, but there’s something about the live production onstage with living, breathing humans recreating those roles in front of you,” McMahon explains. “And there’s this thumping soundtrack with Bernard Herrmann’s score that’s so enigmatic and goes through you … there’s something really visceral about sitting in the audience and being blown away by the energy of the piece.”

The trailblazing film was a technical and creative highpoint of Hitchcock’s career – bringing it to life requires nearly every modern theatrical trick in the book, combining miniatures and screenwork to recreate so many instantly recognisable scenes, from a swooping crop duster to the Mount Rushmore climax. “It’s such a beautifully drawn universe that he’s creating,” McMahon says of director Simon Phillips’ interpretation. “There are really clever theatrical solves for some of those iconic scenes. That was one of the drawcards of the show as well – there’s nothing better than getting a script with impossible theatrical demands that really put your creativity to the test. It’s delightful in how inventive that world becomes and this production really made the most of that.”

And for an actor, it’s a rare treat to be totally immersed in a cinematic world whose influence has seeped into everything from 007 to The Simpsons. “All the costumes are exact replicas of the ones in the film, so it all looks the same,” McMahon says. “But you’ve got to keep the charisma alive inside of it; it’s those little cues and indicators that you use to build the character. I’ve been very fortunate to play a lot of diverse roles. I’ve just come off playing the Maniac in Accidental Death of An Anarchist for Sydney Theatre Company, with a whole bunch of facial hair and these amazing suits for three months. Then to pop on the blonde bombshell wig and some of these incredible dresses, it’s really great to flex your acting muscles in that way.

“You kind of get swept up in the energy and romance of the piece.”

North By Northwest
December, 29 2018 to January, 20 2019
Adelaide Festival Centre

Photography: Jeff Busby

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