★★★☆☆ It may be a fun ride, but this adaptation of Hitchcock’s perfect thriller is more a caricature than an homage.
When screenwriter Ernest Lehman penned the 1959 screenplay for North by Northwest, he set out to create what he described as “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” The collaboration between Lehman and Alfred Hitchcock, the legendary British director and producer dubbed “the master of suspense”, resulted in a film of unrivalled technical audacity, pushing the boundaries of filmmaking to its limits.
Indeed, this unflinching bravado infuses almost every facet of the film, from its daring plot of mistaken identity, seduction and espionage, to the glaringly unnatural suaveness of its debonaire dialogue. Yet for all its narrative absurdities and dubious characterisations, this film is the epitome of Hitchcock’s flair for sleek, sophisticated escapism, circumnavigating his audience’s disbelief with the sheer thrill of his directorial wizardry.
And therein lies the biggest hurdle facing an adaptation of this film for the stage: Hitchcock’s magic is innately anchored to its cinematic medium. Ensuring the audience’s experience is as precisely guided in a live re-enactment as it is in its original on-screen guise is no mean feat.
Matt Hetherington as Vandamm and Amber McMahon as Eve Kendall (photo: Jeff Busby)
Director Simon Phillips and adaptor Carolyn Burns’ strategy is decisive, but often hit and miss. Rather than try to precisely transcribe Hitchcock’s film for the stage – a task that is arguably near impossible – this production offers a comedic sendup of its source material, amplifying North by Northwest’s more implausible qualities with more than a few nods to the analog crudeness of its special effects. The result is unquestionably entertaining, but this production is more of a caricature than an homage.
Matt Day, as Roger O. Thornhill, the Madison Avenue ad-man pulled into a deadly world of secret agents and government secrets, does a commendable job of capturing much of Cary Grant’s original, while allowing a little individuality to percolate through the performance. The pace and vigour of this account keeps a slick tempo to the action, but it is in need of a little more nuance, particularly in the romantic scenes.
Amber McMahon as Eve Kendall looks every bit the blonde screen-siren, but again, the performance feels overly prescriptive – a parody rather than a portrayal. The simmering sexual energy and playful innuendo of the original are replaced by a more blunt method of seduction, and the double-agent metaphor of Thornhill and Kendall’s romance gets lost in the pursuit of saucy gags.
Matt Hetherington fares better as the calm, calculating villain, Vandamm. Rather than hamming-up the archetype baddie, Hetherington’s restraint and icy demeanour make this role all the more chilling, providing a much-needed undercurrent of danger.
Tony Llewellyn-Jones as the doddering Professor and Gina Riley as Thornhill’s naive and imperious mother both execute these character roles with a well-judged amount of exaggeration. However, what should be a vital foil to the dashing swagger and sizzling eroticism of the central protagonists ends up being obscured by the pervading atmosphere of satire.
Matt Day as Roger O. Thornhill and Amber McMahon as Eve Kendall (photo: Jeff Busby)
The most direct link with the film is Ian McDonald’s adaptation of Bernard Herrmann’s extraordinary score. This music is so evocative of Hitchcock’s dramatic powers that it adds a galvanising layer of authenticity, ensuring that some of the white-knuckle thrill and ominous danger of the original is preserved.
As one would expect of a Nick Schlieper design, the set and lighting are extremely savvy on many levels, making nods to the polished retro-glamour of 1950’s New York while being versatile enough to conjure the myriad of different locations with seamless transitions. The use of live-video projections (with the help of a little blue-screen) makes a pleasing nod to the resourcefulness of Hitchcock and other pioneering filmmakers in the pre-digital era, but occasionally the use of this device becomes unnecessarily flippant. The solution to realising the film’s famous Mount Rushmore chase scene is closer to Monty Python than it is to Hitchcock.
As an evening of entertainment, MTC’s North by Northwest is a surefire good night out, and anyone seeing this production is guaranteed to leave the theatre feeling they’ve got their money’s worth. However, this incarnation of the ultimate Hitchcock film feels pointedly un-Hitchcock in its reliance on comedy over dramatic tension. The question of why a stage adaptation of such a well-crafted film is necessary still hangs in the air; it may be a fun ride that’s oozing with moxy, but for me, this North by Northwest is just too far north of farce.
Arts Centre Melbourne and Kay + McClean Productions presents Melbourne Theatre Company’s North by Northwest, at the State Theatre until February 13.