By Terry Johnson
Alfred Hitchcock may not have been a gentleman, but he certainly preferred blondes, and exploited them shamelessly in his films. Who can forget Ingrid Bergman, Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint and of course Janet Leigh in Psycho exquisitely dressed, but icy and remote? Roger Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sunday Times, has suggested that their costumes subtly combined fashion with fetishism, and that they mesmerised the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps.
Academics desperate for thesis topics immediately seize on patterns such as these, and many a PhD has been written about Hitchcock’s psychological hang-ups. Was he impotent (he only had one child, and remained faithful to his wife all his life)? Was he gay but in the closet? Was he so obsessed with one of his earliest heroines, the quintessential blonde Madeleine Carroll, who was his leading lady in the 1935 thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, that he kept trying to recreate her in all his other films?
Who knows? And, many people might say, who cares? But for a playwright in search of a story, there’s enough material to make the quest worth the effort, and so Terry Johnson, multi-award-winning British playwright, has given it his own twist, by exploring two stories simultaneously. First there’s Hitchcock himself (played magnificently by Danny Murphy), auditioning an anxious young blonde bimbo; and then there’s a modern academic Alex (Joss McWilliam), whose field is the semiotics of film, persuading one of his B-students (young, female and of course blonde) to spend three weeks with him on a Greek island to try and recover some ancient fragments of film that might reveal the truth about Hitchcock’s past.
Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Exactly how much disbelief are we expected to suspend here? A 47-year-old single male lecturer alone on an island with a feisty 20-year-old blonde (Sarah Kennedy), and she doesn’t think there’s a sexual agenda? It’s 1999, for goodness sake. And then, when they finally come to the tumble in the hay, she falls in love with him, as 20-year-old gels are wont to do, but he’s proved his point and immediately loses interest. Man the Predator, whose interest is only in conquest. Haven’t we come across this somewhere before?
Meanwhile, back in 1959, Hitchcock is playing the same game while eating Dover sole (the fish skeleton is the best prop in the show), as the pretty little Generic Blonde, played by Melinda Butel with the strangest fake American accent I’ve heard for a long time, tries to persuade him, by means emotional, psychological and sexual, to cast her as one of his leading ladies. We see her in sexy black underwear, in an elegant black evening dress, and eventually in nothing at all, but it doesn’t do a thing for Hitch. This may be because she has a red-necked husband back at home, a place where lots of reciprocal violence takes place, but it may also be another take on the Man the Predator syndrome. Once you’ve got it, you don’t want it any more.
While all of this is going on (or not going on), Alex and Nicola are finding individual frames in canisters containing rotted-away film from an unknown Hitchcock movie of 1919, picking them up carefully with tweezers, and trying to piece together the story they tell. It’s something like Silent Witness with dead orthochromatic film instead of a human body, but without any real edge or tension. (Come back, Sam Riley, all is forgiven.)
Too much story-telling in this review, I know, but it’s because I don’t really want to say what I must, which comes in the form of a question. Why, in spite a cast of fine actors, all of whom I’ve seen doing top-quality performances in other productions, is this show dead boring? < BR>
Why does Joss McWilliam drag his feet around like an old man, rather than someone in the prime of life, even though he is pretending to be dying of cancer? Where’s his enthusiasm for his work, if not for his potential lover? And why does he keep slipping into a David Niven accent and then forgetting it?
And talking about accents, where did Sarah Kennedy’s come from? It’s supposed to be north of England, but it was neither genuine (I was there with some English friends), consistent nor comprehensible. And why did director Jon Halpin have Melinda Butel speak (when she remembered) like Marilyn Monroe, who was never one of Hitchcock’s blondes? The only accent that really worked was Danny Murphy’s, as Hitchcock, and he got Hitch’s pompous mixture of flat English vowels and American twang to perfection. The other member of the cast, Damien Cassidy as the Blonde’s put-upon and putting-upon Husband, didn’t have the same problem, as he didn’t speak until the last scene.
If the actors weren’t able to convince us that their hearts were in these roles, perhaps the text itself is partly to blame, because the plot is creaky and, after the first 20 minutes, very predictable. The script itself is wordy, pretentious and over-written, and to begin a play with a 10-minute lecture on the technical aspects of photographic technique is not guaranteed to put an audience in a happy frame of mind, especially not the television producer who was one of my companions.
But director Jon Halpin must also bear some of the blame. There’s no energy in this production and, in spite of all the potential in the plot, no sense of either fear, urgency or tension. The wide stage of the Bille Brown Theatre doesn’t help, either, as the actors spend too much of their time walking from one end to another, which slows down the action and draws attention to things that we shouldn’t be noticing, like Sarah Kennedy’s totally inappropriate high-heeled shoes (in which she goes for a walk on a rocky Greek island?).
It’s too early in the run for the actors to be tired with the play, so they can’t be forgiven for their failure to engage us. During interval at the 6.30pm show I attended, I overheard plenty of complaints from both middle-aged subscribers and high school students that the play was too long, that they were bored witless, and that they would rather be home watching The Bill.
Most of them went back for the second half, but in spite of the twist in the tale, I don’t think they got their money’s worth, for this was one of those unfortunate theatrical events where nothing neither script, actors or directors lived up to their formidable reputations. Our state theatre company should be able to offer us better fare than this.
Directed by Jon Halpin
Playing until 10 September 2005.
Running time: 2 hrs 25 minutes, including 20 minute interval