Trying on Tropes in The 39 Steps

After nine years on the West End, the theatre adaptation of The 39 Steps will soon debut in Adelaide. The Adelaide Review speaks to director Jon Halpin and designer Ailsa Paterson on what to expect from The State Theatre Company of SA’s latest show.

Few texts have travelled from page to screen to stage like The 39 Steps. This medium-hopping journey is best described with a litany of numbers. First published in 1915, John Buchan’s spy thriller novel was a genre-defining hit. Twenty years later it was adapted to the screen in Alfred Hitchcock’s hugely influential cinema smash of the same name. It was shot two more times for the big screen in the 20th century, then once for television in 2008, but it was in 2005 that the story made its leap into the theatre world. Ninety years after its first publication, Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation infused The 39 Steps with strains of farce and homage to both the novel and film’s achievements. And so it is that now, 102 years after its first print, The 39 Steps will grace the Dunstan Playhouse with a 23-show season. If that collection of numbers has your head spinning, then you will be flummoxed by the show’s 139 characters, played by only four actors. 39-steps-adelaide-review-state-theatre-company-south-australia-james-hartley “You can’t put this film [Hitchock’s version] onstage,” says director Jon Halpin, conceding the difficulty of this adaptation. “But that’s what we’re trying to do. It really adds to the comedy.” To further confuse things, Halpin says that these parts aren’t evenly distributed within the cast of four actors. “One male actor plays one role for the whole show; a female actor plays a few, then more than 100 characters are played by these two clowns”. Indeed, that is set to be the complicated crux of The 39 Steps; the farcical impossibility of adapting a novel that helped define the spy-thriller genre and a film that defined modern action film tropes “that we now take for granted”, like James Bond-style fights upon moving trains or car and plane chases. To make the task easier, Halpin’s strategy is to narrow his focus onto Hitchcock’s version of Buchan’s work, noting that “he [Hitchcock] took enormous liberties with Buchan’s novel” and “visually, it’s a lot more fun to play with”. This will allow the show to explore and exploit Hitchcock’s hallowed visual clichés in hilarious fashion.

The trailer for Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation of The 39 Steps

In a show where two clowns will play more than 100 characters between them, making every one of those roles distinct from one another is a challenge, not just for those actors, but for the show’s design and costuming team. The 39 Steps’ designer Ailsa Paterson says that this task requires “very close collaboration with the cast and director”. Paterson explains that it is simply not possible to create an individual costume for every character. She counts herself lucky to be able to draw on the State Theatre Company’s extensive catalogue of costumes in putting the show’s wardrobe together, but notes that the company has been “making a lot of the women’s costumes ourselves”. 39-steps-adelaide-review-state-theatre-company-south-australia-james-hartley To cover the myriad minor characters’ costumes, Paterson says “we will be using very traditional signifiers”. “From English Bobbies with a hat and cape, you can throw on something quickly to become a train conductor, or German professor,” she says. The farcical conceit of the play that, as Paterson reinforces, “the clown characters are trying to recreate the film” gives extra flexibility in the use of props and costumes. Halpin says that audiences will see the clowns rifling through their own prop boxes throughout the show, finding whatever they can that at least somewhat resembles the item they need. “Props stand in for props. There are a lot of anachronisms,” says Halpin. 39-steps-adelaide-review-state-theatre-company-south-australia-james-hartley The clowns’ own confusion and lack of preparedness in The 39 Steps represents a trope of farcical theatre in itself too, as we’ve seen immortalised in scripts like The Popular Mechanicals or Noises Off. Both Halpin and Paterson assure The Adelaide Review that the chaos onstage won’t be a reflection of their own preparation, but they acknowledges the occasional truth of the “the show must go on” trope. “There’s no other option than to find a solution,” says Paterson. “It has to happen, so it does, thanks to that sort of theatrical magic.” The 39 Steps Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre Friday, August 19 until Sunday, 11 September

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