As the State Theatre Company prepares to restage the breakout hit of its 2016 program, star Nathan Page explains the challenges and thrills of revisiting this profoundly silly take on an early Hitchcock caper.
Alfred Hitchock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps continues to be an influential classic of noir cinema, but over the past decade it has been British playwright Patrick Barlow’s freewheeling and self-parodying adaptation that has brought author John Buchan’s 1915 spy story to new audiences.
“We did our final run in the rehearsal space this morning,” Page tells The Adelaide Review, catching his breath in a brief break from preparations for the the play’s October 2019 run. “We’ve got a week before we open – plenty of time to nail all the technical stuff. Once it’s under lights and all the technical cues and everything it makes it a hell of a lot easier – otherwise you’re just scrambling around!” he says.
There’s certainly no shortage of cues as Barlow’s play trades much of the high-octane drama and tension of the film for irreverence, as a small troupe of actors zip through the story’s countless twists and supporting characters to comic effect. At the eye of this storm is Page, the only cast member to perform just one character. As Richard Hannay, Page inhabits an early example of that classic Hitchcockian protagonist: a sharp looking white guy in a suit running around looking stressed.
“I think it’s a really interesting piece of theatre; it’s been done so many times but it feels special,” Page says of the play. “It’s great writing, it’s a lot of fun to do once you get in to your little groove.”
As the penultimate production of a somewhat transitional State Theatre season as the torch is passed from outgoing artistic director Geordie Brookman to Mitchell Butel, the return of The 39 Steps has the air of a not entirely undeserved victory lap. But while the cast remains the same, set designer Ailsa Paterson – a behind-the-scenes MVP whose work has elevated recent productions such as last month’s Jasper Jones – has worked to refine the rapidly shifting set and characters.
“I think with this production it’s going to be tighter,” Page says. “We have to tour it, and by virtue of having to put everything in a truck and cart it around we’ve had to make the set more compact. That makes the whole show more compact – and I think that actually works in its favour,” he says of the play’s upcoming runs in Wollongong, Canberra and Geelong.
“It’s just tight. Revisiting a show like this after a few years… the first time around it feels like a beast you’re trying to keep up with. Now you feel on top of it; I wouldn’t say it’s more relaxing – but it’s a bit less stressful!”
Page’s personal circumstances have at least settled down since the 2016 season, relocating to Adelaide in early 2018 for partner Sarah-Jayne Howard to begin work as associate artistic director at Australian Dance Theatre. A year on, the change of scenery is working out nicely. “It‘s been really good, it’s been great, lots of pushbike riding in the hills,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter where I am – I can travel to jobs. I would have been more concerned about voiceover work in Adelaide, I don’t think you could make a different career as a voiceover artist in this state if you started here. You have to sort of go and do the hard miles in Sydney or Melbourne and build up that client base.”
Alongside his voiceover work Page has also continued to appear in locally-made film and television productions, from the Daniel Radcliffe-starring feature Escape From Pretoria to a supporting role in Sophie Hyde’s SBS high school sexting drama The Hunting opposite fellow State Theatre regular Elena Carapetis.
While in The 39 Steps Page is saved the task of racing through the nearly-100 characters that supporting players Charles Mayer and Tim Overton fleetingly inhabit throughout the play, the fast-paced 100-minute show is as much a cerebral test as it is a physical challenge.
“It’s just a matter of being quite flexible, quite physically prepared – to have your body in a neutral kind of place so it can go anywhere without injuring yourself. Then once you get going your brain’s got to really kick in and be able to retain all that stuff at speed.”
With Page, Overton, Mayer and Anna Steen (Sense & Sensibility, In The Club) all returning from the original season, the cast at least will be able to navigate the story’s twists and turns with far less uncertainty than its protagonist. “It’s nice to get everyone back together,” he says. “Everyone’s friends, but people are living in different cities, different towns. There’s always a nervy feeling when you first start a gig, working with actors you haven’t worked with – you have no idea of the compatibility.
“But we don’t have that problem this time around,” he says. “We trust each other implicitly.”
Which, it must be said, are five words you certainly won’t find in a Hitchcock film.
The 39 Steps
3 – 12 October