Mirvish presents a stage version of the classic Hitchcock film North by Northwest in Toronto
I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire, so I jumped at the chance to see North by Northwest, a stage adaptation of the director’s classic 1959 film, a mistaken identity spy thriller centred on Manhattan advertising executive Roger Thornhill. The film is brought to life on stage using a dazzling array of clever staging and effects. However, mounting a new a production that so closely adheres to the film also shines a spotlight on some of the original’s problems.
It seemed to me like the goal of playwright Carolyn Burns and director Simon Phillips was not to interpret or re-imagine the script to create a new vision for the work, but to meticulously and faithfully re-create the original film on stage.
The stage version follows the film beat-by-beat, the production design is heavily inspired (and in some cases directly lifted) from the film and that iconic Bernard Hermann musical score is featured throughout (regrettably in pre-recorded form).
Phillips tightens the pacing so the action in the play is propelled along at a faster clip than in the movie. The director’s dynamic movement design lends the show a cinematic quality which is complemented by the use of background video projections created live by cast members filming miniature models in two chroma key studios located on the sides of the stage, in full view of the audience.
It’s a clever concept and, in an age of CGI-dominated films, there’s something delightful about the analog quality of these types of practical special effects, even if the results are sometimes kind of hokey—unfortunately, the famous crop duster sequence comes off feeling a bit goofy rather than terrifying—and the schtick does wear a bit thin by the end.
Canadian actor Jonathan Watton leads a UK-based cast as ad executive Roger O. Thornhill and stars opposite Olivia Fines as the femme fatale, Eve. Both actors are skilled at mimicking Cary Grant’s and Eva Marie Saint’s performances in the original film (complete with the affected Transatlantic accents) but aren’t given the freedom to really make the characters their own.
This kind of dogmatic adherence to the recreation of the original film also leads to some unintended consequences. North by Northwest is based on a classic film that’s firmly set in the Mad Men era and it comes along with all the trappings of that time.
I found it jarring, in this day and age, to see a cast for a production of this size without a single person of colour in it as an aesthetic choice and I also found the casual sexism peppered throughout the show cringe-inducing.
I think Burns and Phillips missed a big opportunity to address, contextualize or comment on these aspects of the film. To make the work more relevant to a contemporary audience, the show could have easily been colour blind cast and shifts in tone and the use of satire could have added context to take the edge off the sexism. The toxic masculinity of the lead character is ripe for parody.
The show is definitely not above using comedy to translate other elements of the movie. The Mount Rushmore setting for the final scene is created live using actors’ faces blown up to grotesque proportions on the backdrop. The silly, tongue-in-cheek moment causes the audience to erupt into fits of giggles during what is supposed to be the dramatic climax.
The show is self-aware enough to address certain shortcomings—like the inability to compellingly stage the dramatic, literally cliff-hanging climax of the film—by using comedy to translate those moments to the stage. I just wish the writer and director could have also put some thought into translating some of the more problematic aspects of the original film for this contemporary stage production.
- North by Northwest is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King Street West) through October 29, 2017.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., and Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets $38.00 to $119.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Royal Alexandra Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of Olivia Fines and Jonathan Watton by Nobby Clark