Theatre Review: North By Northwest

The stage adaptation of Hitchcock’s 1959 classic trades the suspense of the original for  kitsch laughs and a powerful dose of nostalgia.

At first it seems odd that anybody should have thought to adapt North by Northwest for the stage. The films of Alfred Hitchcock are remembered for their cinematography, for their pacing and for the enthralling suspense generated thereby. His oeuvre does not cry out for live performance, as opposed to, say, the monologue-heavy films of Quentin Tarantino (one thinks of the delightful Aotearoan production Puppet Fiction).

Then, of all Hitchcock’s work, North by Northwest seems especially ill-suited as theatrical source material; it takes place across three cities, is littered with big-budget action sequences, and doesn’t have any memorable dialogue. Nor does North by Northwest speak especially urgently to our present time; nothing in contemporary politics, morality or culture turns the attention to, oh, making love in a train, or climbing on a big statue, or fleeing from a crop-duster. The task of adaptation is difficult on the one hand, and unnecessary on the other. What, one might ask, is the point?

As it happens, that pointlessness is the point. In North by Northwest, the movie, Hitchcock masterfully presents a technically perfect product. In North by Northwest, the play currently running at the Adelaide Festival Centre, joy is to be found not found in watching the cast triumph, but in watching them try. In lieu of changing sets, two on-stage cameras create, in real time, a projected backdrop. This is also the mechanism by which stunts are performed—always for laughs, rather than spectacle. Where practicable, novelty and kitsch have been substituted for pathos and suspense.

Matt Day and Amber McMahon in North By Northwest (Photo: Matt Turner)
Matt Day and Amber McMahon in North By Northwest (Photo: Matt Turner)

The production isn’t so much inspired by the film, as it is an homage. Some small changes in the script have been made from the original, but they are hardly noticeable; telephone calls, which were acted out by Grant in brilliant Bob Newhart-style, are now two-sided conversations, and exposition, which enriched the film with an ominous double-agent sub-plot, has been discarded. In Carolyn Burns’ straightforward adaptation, none of the changes are worrying or noticeable.

The actors don’t merely go line-for-line with the original script; they seem to have been directed to go note-for-note. As a result, despite the irony which permeates the whole endeavour, one cannot help but compare the performers with their counterparts; Matt Day is spirited but sounds more like Norm MacDonald than he does Cary Grant. Amber McMahon is suitably sultry as Eve Kendall, but makes some unusual choices with her enunciation, and ends up with a somewhat distracting mid-pacific accent. Despite these small gripes they are eminently likeable.

Overall, though, more is lost than gained. On celluloid, much of the emotional impact in North by Northwest comes from the beautifully acted close-ups; when Kendall sends Thornhill to his almost-certain death in a freak corn-field accident, for example, we know she loves him, not because of what she says, but because of how the light shines upon her moistened eye. These moments—they are wonderful and there are dozens of them—are all lost in translation. What is gained, in the new production, is the occasional newfound joke and some low-budget inventiveness. At its best, this production of North by Northwest is a joy. However, unlike its protagonist, you could never mistake it for the real thing.

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

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