Review: North by Northwest points to the theatre without a Hitch

Published:  June 12, 2015
Claire Brown

I’m from the Gen- why, a cute historical blip of humans that consider themselves to be unique micro-experts on various, obscure avenues of arts and culture. Personally, with a background of Film and Television, there is an alarming assumption that I was raised on (and thus intimately familiar with) Alfred Hitchcock; to the extent that reeling off carefully cultivated collections of phrases and quotes from the great Hitch in everyday speech is an expectation.



Mortifyingly, it was only last week that I sat through my first Hitchcock film – Vertigo – and thus found myself in row C of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s North by Northwest; without the foggiest idea of what was about to happen. Exactly what Carolyn Burns, adaptor of Ernest Lehman’s 1960-Edgar-Winning screenplay, anticipated. Producing what she describes as “experimental theatre on a cinematic scale” – and adapting the screenplay for clueless noddies who haven’t done their research- Burns ensures the experience is still enjoyable despite the risk that numerous references to the original mother ship might go missed. Evidently, plenty of links to the film were successfully forged- the pompous guffawing of attending movie buffs serving as a loud indicator – and watching the film a week later it was clear to see why. To condense a convoluted plot of mistaken identity and deception onto a singular stage space that involves literally planes, trains and automobiles is ambitious at best, but with the combined vision of renowned theatre director Simon Phillips (Richard III (2010), August: Osage County (2009), set Designer Nick Shliepper (Don Giovanni, Madame Butterfly) and video effects genius Josh Burns, they pulled off the whole shooting match rather brilliantly.

North by Northwest, presented by Melbourne Theatre Company in association with Kay + McLean Productions and Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures

North by Northwest, presented by Melbourne Theatre Company in association with Kay + McLean Productions and Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures

The largely empty stage, split between two see-through booths in the wings and a main central stage is dominated by gigantic, windowless steel frames that transport you instantly to the side of a 1950’s New York Skyscraper and incidentally, the opening credits of the famous 1959 flick. Actors come rushing out into the space in dull suits that were the rage of the era, weaving in and out of these frames and creating elevators, hotel corridors, train carriages balconies – relying on the imagination of the audience to easily slot the nitty-gritty details into place. The speed of the scene transitions was phenomenal – the sheer energy and flawlessness of the performance effortlessly sucked the audience along with the drama of it all.

However, what everyone raves about, and consequently keeps the production running for 16 additional shows, is the combination of theatre and multimedia. We’ve all seen enough horrific ‘modern’ Shakespeare’s that triggers a cringe when the back wall of the stage begins glow under a projector glare, but Phillips used green screen technology, tinsy figurines, and the shiny head of an extra in front of two live cameras to light up the stage. Again, the dramatic cutaways and extreme close-ups that mark a Hitchcock film echoed through the work, and the audience could see the whole genius in motion through the side booths mentioned earlier – but this was only when they weren’t throwing themselves back in panic as a crop-duster plane (in reality a small toy wiggled in front of the camera) roared across the stage. It was a cracker; humorous, witty, and brilliantly pulled off, I’d consider cancelling your midweek dinners and getting to the theatre before the whole thing goes North.

Trailer North by Northwest Melbourne Theatre Company 2015

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