Multi award-winning director Simon Phillips staged the world premiere of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest to great acclaim in Australia in 2015. This thrillingly inventive stage show premiered in the UK at Theatre Royal Bath last week and continues there until Saturday 12 August, before premiering in Canada this autumn.
Former artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Simon Phillips’s numerous directing credits range from new works and contemporary plays to Shakespearean classics, musicals and opera. His work has toured across the world, including the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which had numerous international seasons and transferred to Broadway, and Love Never Dies, which played in Australia, Japan, Germany and the USA, and was filmed by Universal and released internationally on DVD.
Simon Phillips talks about transferring Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest from screen to stage and bringing its UK premiere to Bath. . .
What is it about North by Northwest that lends itself to a stage adaptation?
The most tempting thing about it was actually the impossible part of it – what doesn’t lend it to a stage adaptation at all, like the crop-duster sequence and the chase on Mount Rushmore. That’s the challenge, thinking ‘That’s an interesting thing to try and put on stage’, but so much of the film really has quite a theatrical feel to it anyway. There are sit-down set pieces in interiors that feel to me really quite set and theatrical already.
Also with Hitchcock’s style, the way he produces things, there’s kind of an edge to what he does and a sense of staging that feels like it’s primed to go on stage. It’s 50% that and 50% things that feel like they aren’t stageable so it’s exciting trying to figure out how to stage them.
How faithful to the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film and Ernest Lehman screenplay is Carolyn Burns’ script?
I would say it’s very faithful to it, but she was particularly interested in the kind of sub-current of political intrigue that’s going on. I think what appealed most to her was the idea that The Professor and Vandamm are the same so the idea of the Cold War and the spy vs spy element is probably upped a little in the adaptation.
There are some attempts made to cover ourselves a bit more plotting-wise and to flesh it out a bit more in stage terms with some of the interactions between the characters. But in terms of the plotting and the basic sit-down elements of the screenplay she’s stayed very faithful to it. Where the film is already very theatrical it’s kind of playing into our hands.
Jonathan Watton in rehearsal. Photo: Nobby Clark
Given how well-known and loved the film is, will audiences still be surprised by the twists and turns of the stage version?
That’s a really interesting question to me. You always have to work on it as if people haven’t seen it and even people who have seen it only remember certain key elements. You’re always surprised at the bits they don’t remember. There are key visuals they remember, but often details of the plot haven’t stuck in people’s minds.
So I tell the story assuming no-one has seen it and therefore the twists and turns of the plot are dealt with with the same sense of integrity and the same sense of thriller that inhabits the film. Then I guess the other delight is audiences who do know it coming to see the play and discovering how the story is being told. There seems an element of ‘How are they going to do that scene? How is that moment going to be realised on stage?’
Had you and Carolyn worked together before the original Melbourne production in 2015?
We’re married and we’d worked on a few things together before that production. I directed the first full-length play that she wrote in New Zealand 30 years ago and we’ve worked together a few times since.
And was doing such an innovative show as North by Northwest the most challenging thing you’ve worked on together or had you staged anything similar before?
The overall demands that the film put on us makes it the most challenging thing we’ve done. The other things we’ve worked on before were written for the theatre straight-up.
How did that original production come about?
The Australian producers came to us. When I was running the Melbourne Theatre Company I imported Maria Aitkens’ production of The 39 Steps, which we did with Australian actors and then that production went to tour around the country. Andrew Kay and Liza McLean took over the commercial element of that production and I think they were thinking ‘What else can we do in that vein?’ They came to us with the idea of doing North by Northwest – which is, as they discovered to their no doubt financial disappointment, a far more complex thing to put on stage when there are at least half a dozen consistent central characters rather than just four. It was a bigger affair altogether than The 39 Steps. But it’s a favourite film of ours. The style and the tone of the film have always been appealing to me and I think Carolyn had even studied it at film school so we were really keen to do it.
Given the film’s visuals, just how do you do North by Northwest on stage?
[Laughs] That’s kind of a question I won’t answer because I feel there’s a thrill for people coming to see how it’s done. The starting point for me as a director – before saying to the producers ‘Yes, I believe I can make this work’ and before even Carolyn had started to work on the text of the adaptation – was to come up with a concept for the crop-duster and Mount Rushmore sequences.
Without spoiling the surprise of exactly how the visuals are done, can you tell us about the use of film projection in the show?
If you’re putting a film on stage I don’t like resorting to film because it feels like admitting defeat, like the film was meant to be a film and it wasn’t meant to be a piece of theatre after all. But with the scale of some of the things that have to happen in North by Northwest I knew that I had to use projection on some level.
So I just worked on this idea that if the audience saw the elements of film being made in front of their very eyes then that added a layer of theatricality to the idea of using projections. Anything that the audience sees on the screen at the back of the stage they also see being made for the screen in front of them, which is why we have two live cameras.
Olivia Fines and Gerald Kyd in rehearsal. Photo: Nobby Clark
You deploy green screen technology in the show. How does that work on stage?
It’s very much harder than using green screen technology in a studio. The control of the light as you’re trying to light actors performing on the stage while also creating the lighting conditions for the green screen technology is really quite tricky.
I’ve doubled the dilemma of that because the screens play into the idea of the East vs West thriller so one of them is red and the other is blue. Green screens were made green for a very sensible reason; it’s the colour that appears least in things like human flesh. I’ve really made a rod for my back in making those screens have a thematic significance to the plot.
In terms of how we use them, whenever we’re doing a large exterior scenario – like the cornfields where the crop-duster scene happens or the thrilling ride down the mountain that Roger Thornhill takes when he’s put into the car when he’s drunk and they push him down a cliff – we use a combination of live models, then the larger backgrounds of those models are fed into the video by green screen. We use it for skies and landscapes, then what is appearing in those landscapes is done with live models.
What other visual techniques do you deploy to tell the story?
The whole spirit of the production is that the sense of chase and thriller that inhabit the film are rendered theatrical by the speed and fluidity by which the actors change the environment that they’re in. It’s an elaborate use of resolutely low-tech elements, like a piece of furniture shifted round at high speed by the performers.
There’s also very detailed use of the soundtrack and of very specific lighting. In some cases we’re using very high-tech devices in a low-tech approach, so it’s a little bit handmade with the story being told by these 12 actors. There is no tangible sense in which you perceive they’re being assisted by anything in the telling of the story.
We use models inside the camera booth; we don’t use on-stage models at all, we just use small versions of things like trains and trucks and even the famous house that Vandamm lives in was modelled on Frank Lloyd Wright houses. All those things we have in miniature and by placing them in relationship to our on-stage cameras they appear large for the audience.
Are there any parts of the film that proved too hard to stage?
The only piece in the film, which I love and which I really wish I could have done but couldn’t, is the sequence where the police know Roger is disguised as a porter with a red cap. They go through the Chicago train station looking at every porter in a red cap. It’s such a great sequence in the movie, but with a cast of 12 people we couldn’t quite pull it off. Otherwise I feel most of the key moments are there. There are things we haven’t done, but there’s nothing I’ve sacrificed regretfully.
Are you excited about bringing the show to the UK and premiering it at Theatre Royal Bath?
The Theatre Royal Bath is such a beautiful theatre so I feel very lucky that the production fits into it. There’s a kind of footprint for the show because of the projection so it won’t fit into certain theatres, but it fits there. I was so thrilled when we were asked to be part of the season there. It’s very exciting.
Is there anything about the theatre itself that works well for the show?
The show was conceived in Australia for a contemporary theatre because most of the theatres in Australia are contemporary so it’ll be lovely seeing it sitting in a theatre with such history. I love places like the Theatre Royal Bath because they say ‘theatre’ to me. The stage set is very austere, you might say; it’s kind of a silver grid that’s based on the opening titles from the movie. It’ll be interesting to see all that black gloss and the silver framework sitting inside a theatre that has that classic charm the Theatre Royal has. It’s a nice juxtaposition.
Have you made any changes for the UK premiere?
Apart from the fact I have 12 actors who are different from the 12 actors I worked with originally and they always bring new ideas and nuances, the physical production isn’t significantly altered. For one thing, the amount of time it took to actually master the complexities of the staging doesn’t make it advisable to start again so we’re sticking with what we know works.
What do you feel Jonathan Watton brings to the Cary Grant role of Roger O Thornhill?
It’s such an interesting challenge to take on something that’s kind of been created in people’s minds by a personality actor like Cary Grant. Jonathan has the same qualities of urbanity and good looks that Grant brought to it, but it’s fantastic to have an actor who is so keen to just re-engage with the details as if they hadn’t been realised before – the nature of what the character is and the journey he’s going on. It’s one of the great film concepts, the ultimate mistaken identity movie, and the character is on the front-foot consistently but the plot puts him on the back-foot consistently. That’s a great thing for an actor to play and Jonathan is really up for it.
Is that how you approached the rest of the casting, going for the essence of the characters rather than of the iconic performers who first played them?
There is a particular difficulty in putting films on stage because the actual personality of the character has to some extent been solidified in people’s minds. It’s not like with Hamlet where every actor is bringing another version. We’re introduced to these characters by the actor who played them originally and there’s an extent to which you know that people coming to see the show for whom the film is beloved want to see the essence of that character as defined in their minds by the actor who played him or her originally.
They want to experience that, but we don’t want as theatre-makers to just be doing something that’s dully imitative. It’s about knowing that the original actor in the movie was cast because they embodied what Hitchcock and Lehman wanted but also knowing that the actor we’ve cast is bringing the quintessence of the role as well as their own personality and layering that into the mix as well.
Jonathan Watton and Olivia Fines in rehearsal. Photo: Nobby Clark
The film came out three years before the first Bond movie Dr No but had a very 007 feel to it. Have the Bond films been an influence for you?
Definitely. The character of Thornhill particularly feels like a precursor to the Bond personality in so far as you’ve got a man who seems relatively unruffled by the predicament he’s put in. He’s unhesitant in putting danger aside in the interest of sex. The obvious difference is that the Bond character is a special agent whereas Roger O. Thornhill is an advertising executive. All his chutzpah presumably comes from his profession, but as I said before he’s never ahead of the action – he’s behind the action until the end of the movie so it’s a very different feel. But when I go back to the film I’m always surprised at how it moves slower than the stage show does. It’s less concerned with pace than I am, but when you don’t have the streetscapes and trains rushing through tunnels and all that at your disposal you need to replace it with the energy of the cast.
Why do you feel Hitchcock’s work is still so revered?
It feels studied to a fault if you look at it now. With some of the pacing and the structure and the framing, we know the way he made films was so controlled, how economic he was with film stock, how he planned things meticulously. . . There was no sense of improvisation about the way he put his films together and I think it’s about that – that the hand of the master seems so clear in the filmmaking. Even though it may have dated in terms of film technique you’re so conscious of the studious skill and then the flare with which he puts the stuff together. It’s beautifully framed and beautifully shot.
As a master innovator himself, what do you think he’d make of this production?
I always like to think a person like that would go with it. I’ve found in my experience that it’s rarely the actual creator themselves who is over-protective of their original work, it’s the person who’s representing the creator. The estates of dead writers, for example, are probably far more protective of their work than the dead writer would be were they still alive. So I hope Hitchcock would have loved it.
Have you been to Bath before?
I visited Bath as a tourist many years ago, 20 or 25 years ago, so it’ll be lovely to be back there. I remember the architecture was just so beautiful and I’m looking forward to rediscovering it although [laughs] of course I’ll be spending most of my time in the theatre in the dark.
North by Northwest is on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 12 August. Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk