06 June 2015

Review: North by Northwest


North by Northwest
Melbourne Theatre Company
4 June 2015
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 20 June

MTC North by Northwest. Photo by Jeff Busby


The MTC's much-anticipated North by Northwest will be a sold-out hit. This re-telling of Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 much-loved film is slick and fun and doesn't detract from its source material. While it skims the surface of what makes Hitchock's films so watchable, it's pretty cool to watch it skip, make ripples and get safely to the other side.

The film, about advertising man Roger O Thornhill being mistaken for a cold-war super-spy, was made for a 70 mm film telling with huge settings – from New York to Mount Rushmore – that declare it a work that belongs on a huge screen. Director Simon Phillips is the co-designer with Nick Schlieper and they have created a telling that belongs on a stage.

Along with the cast of 12, who seem like hundreds, and the rights to the film's music, the design has moments of theatrical mastery as many of the iconic big-screen scenes – including the crop duster and the climb over the stone faces – are made with the help of their own big screen. What makes them a joy is that there's no secret as to how the effects are created. With a wink to the early days of screen miniatures and models, the cinema effects are made live by the cast, but the live action of the characters is always kept as the focus.

The cast reach to the film portrayals, but bring enough of themselves to make them more than an impersonation. Matt Day's Cary-Grant-cum-Thornhill, Amber McMahon's Eva-Marie Saint-cum-femme-fatale-Eve and Deidre Rubenstein's Jesse-Royce-Landis-cum-Thornhill's-mother are especially wonderful.

What the stage hasn't re-created is Hitchcock's pace and suspense. His changing point of view techniques create too-scared-to-blink tension, when the audience are just ahead of the characters (know what's about to happen), and jump-in-your-seat fright, when they are with the character (find out what happens as the character does). His close ups and fast cuts trap his characters and give them no choice. The stage gives characters literal and figurative space to make choices, which gives the audience space to question the MacGuffin.

Hitchcock popularised the term MacGuffin as character motive that's never really explained or given its place in the narrative logic. This technique excels when the audience don't have time to think; when all that matters is "what happens next?".

A lot of this show's "what happens next?" comes from assumed familiarity with the film and wanting to know how they are going to make each scene, rather than from the tension of the plot.

As there are so many surprises on stage, this is its own tension and its own story – as long as MacGuffin's friend doesn't tap you on the shoulder and ask "Why are we telling this story?" or "Is this excellence, Mr Brandis?".

As such, it's easy to compare it to the Olivier Award–winning re-telling of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (2008 MTC) and to Kneehigh Theatre's production of the 1945 film Brief Encounter (2013 MIAF), which both reflected the mannered UK societies when they were made. Steps was spoof and Encounter was homage, but North by Northwest tries to be both, which leaves it tonally confusing and, at times, a bit lost when in-jokes overcome the pace of the story.

None of which is going to make it any less popular. It's a show that's found the road between the crushing-cliff wall of safety and the sharp-edged plummet of originality.
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This was on AussieTheatre.com.

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