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