From screen the to

The­atri­cal ver­sions of hit movies are a tes­ta­ment to the hold that film has on our imag­i­na­tion, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

SOME­THING odd is hap­pen­ing in the theatre world. In the past few months in Lon­don, Diana Rigg has ap­peared in a stage ver­sion of Span­ish film di­rec­tor Pe­dro Almod­ovar’s All About My Mother , and there’s been a pro­duc­tion of Brief En­counter , that ar­che­typal stiff- up­per- lip 1940s love story.

A stage ver­sion of Ing­mar Bergman’s Scenes from a Mar­riage , di­rected by Trevor Nunn, played at the new Bel­grade Theatre in Coven­try. The adap­ta­tion was by Melbourne play­wright Joanna Murray- Smith.

Now the Melbourne Theatre Com­pany is about to present an­other screen- to- stage adap­ta­tion, Pa­trick Barlow’s run­away farce The 39 Steps : less of John Buchan than of Al­fred Hitch­cock’s face­tious 1935 film.

The homage to Hitch­cock is all but ab­so­lute. ‘‘ We watch it all the time and Pa­trick Barlow’s di­a­logue is at least 60 per cent from the film,’’ says the show’s Bri­tish di­rec­tor, Maria Aitken. ‘‘ We al­most do the film frame by frame.’’

We take it for granted that cin­ema is a dom­i­nant form of dra­matic en­ter­tain­ment. It also con­stantly ab­sorbs scripts and plot­lines from drama, mu­si­cals and the world of books. What’s un­usual is that theatre is now re­con­fig­ur­ing film as live per­for­mance, though as stage adap­ta­tions, Scenes from a Mar­riage with its stormy drama and that com­i­cal thriller The 39 Steps could not be more dif­fer­ent.

Nunn called Murray- Smith in April last year, ask­ing her to work on Scenes from a Mar­riage . By co­in­ci­dence, she had the DVD of the film and had a trans­la­tion — ‘‘ the not very good trans­la­tion,’’ she says — on her bed­side ta­ble.

The di­rec­tor ar­rived in Melbourne with the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany last July to present King Lear and The Seag­ull , and he and Murray- Smith spent a day work­ing on the Bergman project.

Then: ‘‘ Trevor got a taxi back to his ho­tel and turned on the TV to watch the news, and I turned on the news and it was re­ally strange. What we both heard was that Bergman was dead.’’

The Bergman es­tate was co- oper­a­tive, though re­served the right to ap­prove the script. ‘‘ Trevor said, ‘ Let’s just pro­ceed. Let’s just do it.’ ’’

Murray- Smith is an in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned play­wright: An­nette Ben­ing would like to do her com­edy The Fe­male of the Species in the US; Meryl Streep did a read­ing of Hon­our in New York and the play has been staged in Bri­tain with Eileen Atkins and Diana Rigg as the fe­male lead.

In her approach to Scenes from a Mar­riage , there was no at­tempt to get the ef­fect of the cin­ema in a tech­ni­cal sense, no wor­ry­ing about what the cam­era had done.

Bergman, af­ter all, was a man of the theatre as well as a film­maker, and it was sim­ply a mat­ter of see­ing what it was in his script that spoke to Murray- Smith’s sense of the theatre. ‘‘ We knew that, es­sen­tially, there had to be sub­stan­tial changes to turn it into a play and to get it to the right length,’’ Murray- Smith says. She and Nunn had al­ready dis­cussed the play’s set­ting, and agreed to blur the sense of pe­riod: not the 1970s, but also not up­dated to a world with mo­bile phones.

Murray- Smith had to al­low her sense of Bergman’s voice to blend with her own. ‘‘ And in a cer­tain way his man­ner of writ­ing was not that dif­fer­ent from mine,’’ she says. ‘‘ I mean I write shorter sen­tences but in the same di­rec­tion.’’

She has, of course, worked in the same emo­tional ter­ri­tory as the in­flu­en­tial Swedish di­rec­tor: both drama­tised the heart­break­ing as­pects of mar­riage. ‘‘ I had to re­duce ( Scenes ) in a way that didn’t feel like a re­duc­tion of the power of this thing.’’

Nunn had com­mis­sioned a lit­eral trans­la­tion of the screen­play and Murray- Smith fin­ished a draft in three weeks. She did ev­ery­thing she could to con­cen­trate the el­e­ments of the piece that she thought were most dra­matic, the most play- like. Read­ing her adap­ta­tion of the film is like hav­ing the sor­row and pity of Bergman’s mas­ter­piece over­take the mind with its es­sen­tial power strik­ingly in­tact.

Murray- Smith says Imo­gen Stubbs and Iain Glen were as­ton­ish­ing as the emo­tion­ally

es­tranged cou­ple, Mar­i­anne and Jo­han. ‘‘ They ab­so­lutely em­bod­ied the in­ten­sity and hon­esty of the piece,’’ she says. ‘‘ They were bril­liant in the way they segued from com­edy to tragedy and back again.’’

She seems lib­er­ated by see­ing a great stage di­rec­tor in­ter­pret a vi­sion that is all at once hers and that of the Swedish mas­ter. She laughs and says, ‘‘ Some of the jokes are ac­tu­ally mine.’’

In a weird co­in­ci­dence, Liv Ull­man, the orig­i­nal Mar­i­anne from the film ver­sion, is sched­uled to di­rect Cate Blanchett in A Street­car Named De­sire next year for Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany. Per­haps the STC will be tempted to stage Murray- Smith’s adap­ta­tion of Bergman’s clas­sic film.

Noth­ing could be more dif­fer­ent than Barlow’s The 39 Steps . It re- cre­ates the 1935 Hitch­cock es­pi­onage- and- high­lands thriller with a cast of four play­ing ‘‘ at least 139 roles’’.

Barlow is also an ac­tor, who ap­peared in Not­ting Hill and the television se­ries Ab­so­lutely Fab­u­lous. So what led him to The 39 Steps ?

‘‘ I thought, ‘ What do I as­so­ci­ate with the 39 Steps story? Hang­ing off the Forth Bridge, be­ing chained to a wo­man, Mr Me­mory. About eight iconic mo­ments. And I thought if I want to be in­volved I want it to be based on that beau­ti­ful ’ 30s movie.’’

There have been three films made of Buchan’s novel, al­though Hitch­cock’s with Robert Donat and Madeleine Car­roll is the most fa­mous. ( Buchan, when he met Hitch­cock — he was Lord Tweedsmuir by then — said, ‘‘ I’m very much look­ing for­ward to the roy­al­ties, Mr Hitch­cock.’’)

Barlow says he found a the­atri­cal id­iom for the knock- out mo­ments in the film: ‘‘ I mean they do hang off the Forth Bridge.

‘‘ I’ve added an emo­tional core to it,’’ he says of his adap­ta­tion. ‘‘ I wasn’t in­ter­ested in just do­ing a light- hearted spoof on Hitch­cock. I was in­ter­ested in giv­ing some heart to this story of Richard Han­nay, a very lonely up­per- class fel­low who has not had much ex­pe­ri­ence of feel­ing. There are three women in the story who open him up emo­tion­ally and in­tro­duce him to his own heart.

‘‘ It’s very ro­man­tic. And with­out be­ing pompous it’s a bit more like the Shake­spearean idea of com­edy where the boy gets the girl but he doesn’t get her straight away. He has to go through the jour­ney of the For­est of Ar­den.’’

Barlow is a thought­ful tin­kerer with clas­sics. ‘‘ My daugh­ter has been do­ing Romeo and Juliet and there’s some­thing about the love in that play that’s too im­ma­ture. It’s not real, it’s ex­plo­sive and ju­ve­nile, which is why it can’t last. Romeo and Juliet are like an Or­lando and Rosalind who have never been sep­a­rated.’’

Aitken brought to the script her light­ning tim­ing and wit. An ac­tor and di­rec­tor, she is the grand- niece of news­pa­per baron Lord Beaver­brook and the sis­ter of trou­bled for­mer Bri­tish MP Jonathan Aitken. She has a se­ri­ous com­mit­ment to the busi­ness of com­edy, and is said to have done more Noel Coward than any­one on earth.

She and Barlow have turned Hitch­cock’s film into a scin­til­lat­ing farce. Its con­cep­tual frame­work is a pro­vin­cial theatre pro­duc­tion, scratched to­gether with a seedy star ( who plays the hero Richard Han­nay) who won’t move any props, a wo­man who plays the three fe­male roles and a cou­ple of char­ac­ter ac­tors who play all the other roles and move the en­tire set. The quick cos­tume changes from one char­ac­ter to the next are part of the mad­cap theatre ex­pe­ri­ence.

The play the­atri­calises the Hitch­cock magic even as it quotes it.

‘‘ She also made me am­plify the Hitch­cock ref­er­ences in the text: a ref­er­ence to North by North­west or The Birds ,’’ Barlow says.

‘‘ It’s ab­so­lutely one whole vis­ual shad­ow­play. At one point I thought I’d just add a cou­ple of lines and Maria said, ‘ You can’t add two lines.’ Ev­ery­thing is very pre­cisely timed. There’s no room for im­pro­vi­sa­tion. It’s so tight and Maria is fan­tas­ti­cally pre­cise.’’

Aitken dis­likes theatre that is made cin­e­matic through com­puter magic. She points out that Nunn’s pro­duc­tion of The Wo­man in White — the Andrew Lloyd Web­ber mu­si­cal noted for its use of scenic pro­jec­tions — wasn’t one of his hits.

‘‘ You have to be care­ful about ( trans­fer­ring) film to stage,’’ she says. ‘‘ Ra­dio is ac­tu­ally very close to film. Any­thing you can do vis­ually you can do au­rally and I would al­ways be in­clined to try out on ra­dio what I was in­ter­ested in do­ing on film.

‘‘ You have some re­ally orig­i­nal twists in this 39 Steps . You re­ally need to ratchet it up to an­other genre. You can’t just put some­thing on stage with­out re­lo­cat­ing it in terms of theatre con­ven­tions.’’

The 39 Steps has been a hit in Lon­don and New York. Aitken, who adores the dif­fi­culty of com­edy, has made it into a pro­duc­tion that en­thralls even the kind of theatre- goer who runs a mile from farce. She has, af­ter all, done ev­ery­thing from Christo­pher Mar­lowe’s Doc­tor Faus­tus with Richard Bur­ton at Ox­ford to di­rect­ing David Suchet in Man and Boy , the Ter­ence Rat­ti­gan play about a man who shops his son sex­u­ally: she’s said to be so good at com­edy be­cause she thinks drama is a pushover by com­par­i­son.

Barlow and Aitken have cre­ated a hit play out of a world sat­u­rated with the me­mory of the cin­ema.

‘‘ I like to take some­thing peo­ple think they know ,’’ Barlow says, ex­plain­ing the al­lure of re­veal­ing some­thing un­ex­pected in the familiar.

Isn’t that why we take movies, the col­lec­tive dreams of our cul­ture, and turn them into that an­cient thing, a piece of theatre that will hold the eye and tug at the heart? Melbourne Theatre Com­pany’s pro­duc­tion of The 39 Steps opens at the Arts Cen­tre Play­house on April 10.

Cur­tain call: Main pic­ture, Grant Piro, left, and Tony Tay­lor in Melbourne Theatre Com­pany’s The 39 Steps ; above right, Hitch­cock’s The 39 Steps ; right, Iain Glen and Imo­gen Stubbs in Scenes from a Mar­riage

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