Justin Stewart Cotta, Matt Day, Lachlan Woods and Ian Bliss in rehearsal.

From the Reading Room | Widescreen Thriller

North by Northwest is experimental theatre on a cinemascopic scale, says writer Carolyn Burns.

Roger O Thornhill is the wrong man, but no one believes him. The cops don’t believe him and the thugs with the guns don’t believe him. For them, he’s the right man and he’s got to be stopped. So Thornhill starts running …

Alfred Hitchcock returned again and again in his films to the theme of the unjustly accused hero who is forced to clear his name. It wasn’t just because he loved seeing his heroes squirm on the pin of false accusation. He also knew that a hero on the run could take the plot virtually anywhere. That’s liberating for a film director. In the case of North by Northwest, Hitchcock followed Roger from Madison Avenue, New York, to Rapid City, South Dakota, and the action never stops.

Yet, what might liberate a film-maker, could create a cluster of headaches for the writer taking on the stage adaptation. How does one hold Hitchcock’s trans-American sweep within the confines of a stage? Carolyn Burns, who has adapted the screenplay for the forthcoming MTC production, won’t divulge too many technical secrets, except to say that the production will be experimental. Some solutions have never been tried before – certainly not at this scale. From the beginning, she has collaborated closely with director Simon Phillips, lighting and set designer Nick Schlieper and video effects expert Josh Burns to find ways through the daunting technical challenges.

‘We throw ideas around and I will roll off any good idea they have,’ she says. ‘Occasionally, they will roll off an idea I have. I think that is one of the strong points about this team. They know each other so well that they have short cuts of dialogue and language. One says half a sentence and the others know what they mean. Simon and I are like that, too. He’s never been one to say, “You are the writer; I’ll do what you want” – which he does with some other writers. We tend to have brisk and frisky discussions.’

If anything, Burns who previously adapted High Society for MTC in 1992, has made it harder for herself by insisting on fidelity to Ernest Lehman’s screenplay and Hitchcock’s film, which she studied closely many years ago as a student at the Australian Film and Television School and came to admire.

‘My adaptation plays great homage to the original script, because it’s a great script,’ she says. ‘We had to make a decision early on whether we create a farce like The 39 Steps [MTC 2008] or, which is what I wanted, a true comedy-thriller, a political thriller. That’s what fascinated me, as a political person, is the political aspect. I didn’t want to spoof the film, with four actors, men dressing as women, and all the quick changes. So after Andrew Kay (the show’s coproducer) asked me if I was interested in writing the script, I spent a year looking at it, thinking about it, finally deciding that if we could get the thriller aspect of it happening from the beginning, then I could do it. But it requires a bigger cast and some risk.’

Throughout the various drafts, which were helped along last year by technical workshops at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and later in MTC’s Sturt Street rehearsal rooms, Burns kept the audience in mind. Her guiding principle has been to write for those who have never seen the film. This keeps her honest and the storytelling fresh, forcing her to communicate clearly what is going on without assuming that everyone is already one step ahead. She’s also aware that Hitchcock had the benefit of close-ups and changes of camera angles; she has to tell the same story completely in the ‘wide-screen’ format of the stage. It’s been a challenge, especially since Lehman wrote such a taut script.

‘The script is so well-structured there’s little rejigging it,’ she says. ‘One thing I have done, at the beginning, is set up certain characters in a more clear way. I have used a little Rear Window, so we are spying into six or seven little scenarios, bringing in the spying theme from the start, hearing different conversations to set up the curiosity of the audience. Whether it will work or not, well we’ll see. This is all a big experiment.’

North by Northwest, adapted by Carolyn Burns, is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse from 1 June.

Published on 22 May 2015

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