Friday, June 18, 2010

The 39 Steps

I watched Hitchcock's The 39 Steps again a couple of nights ago. It was even better than I remembered, full of typical Hitchcock moments - comedy in the midst of suspense - and beautifully cast.

I watched it in part to check it against the play, The 39 Steps, which the Fortune Theatre here in Dunedin has just presented. Supposedly this stage version uses every bit of dialogue in the movie's script. Perhaps the Wikipedia description is closer to the truth:

The play's concept calls for the entirety of the 1935 adventure film
The 39 Steps to be performed nearly verbatim onstage, but with a cast of four. One actor plays the hero, Richard Hannay, an actress plays the three women whom he has romantic entanglements with, and two other actors play every other character in the show: heroes, villains, men, women, children and even the occasional inanimate object. This often requires lighting fast quick changes and occasionally for them to play multiple characters at once. Thus the film's serious spy story is played mainly for laughs, and the script is full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Alfred Hitchcock films, including Rear Window, Psycho and North by Northwest.

Note the use of the words, 'nearly verbatim.' The movie has more dialogue overall, mainly because there are several crowd scenes. What the play does is take the scenes where there are fewer characters, for the most part, and hang its 'played mainly for laughs' production on this. It also adds occasional lines. Furthermore it takes the lines from the original script and overdoes them to such a degree that every line is milked for any possibility of a laugh. You have to see the thing to understand how this can be done, but, in general, it is done. Furthermore lines are elasticated hugely in order to fill them with all manner of business. The result is a two-hour play extended out from a ninety-minute movie.

It wasn't just the Fortune production that was done like this; this is the norm for all productions - UK, Broadway, wherever.

Now don't get me wrong - for the most part I enjoyed the play, but (there's always a 'but' with me) many of the laughs are the result of a nudge, nudge, wink, wink approach. In other words, the audience is constantly pushed to see the humour, however weak it may be. And by the second act I was beginning to tire of this overdone approach to comedy. Comedy doesn't need to be drummed up; is something is funny the audience will laugh. There was plenty of rapid change stuff that was funny in itself; there were lots of daft ideas that were visually funny, and there were even some subtle moments.

Hitchcock set out to make a comedy thriller - it's typical of the British thrillers, for the most part, made at a time when Hitch was in his prime. And it's a precurser to the likes of North by Northwest, made during Hitch's American period. Hence the movie has Robert Donat (as Richard Hannay) and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed to each other for a chunk of the movie; this creates all manner of humorous moments. And there are several excellent characters who are simply funny in themselves (compared to John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft, who have the most tense scene in the movie, and play it straight). Even Lucie Mannheim, as the spy who appears early in the story, has several charmingly funny lines.

So there was plenty of humour in the story to start with. The stage version is never content with any of this; it dredges humour out of everything, which leaves the piece with no breathing space, and nothing in the way of a suspense.

However, on top of all this, the Fortune theatre production had Patrick Davies as one of the two actors who play nearly every part between them (except the three main women's roles). Davies is a brilliantly physical actor. There's one moment where he does something straight out of the ministry of silly walks - a movement that would cripple most people in two minutes. But as the play goes on, Davies almost seems to take over. His Scots hotelkeeper's wife was a shrill noise, like someone in need of a colon cleanse - the lines were invariably lost under the shrieking. His softly spoken political speaker mouthed absolutely nothing for about two solid minutes - some people, including a couple of my friends, found this hysterically funny. I just wanted him to get on with the play and stop hogging the limelight. And when he's playing the Professor at the end of the play, and is shot, he becomes a marionette, quite unable to lie down and die. I found this embarrassing, to be honest. It unbalanced the play.

All this griping aside, the play had huge energy, the cast likewise, and again and again it showed how it's possible on a stage with almost no scenery, to conjure up all manner of places, rooms and situations. (Incidentally, the Fortune production actually had a cast of six: two women doubled as stage crew and played a few tiny roles. Yet Wikipedia says the cast consists of just four actors.)

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