REVIEW: North by Northwest (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Tim George


How do you put this story on the stage?

With North by Northwest, you have a property that was written for the screen by Ernest Lehman and directed by the iconic Alfred Hitchcock – there is no other source material to draw on. North By Northwest is defined by its sense of forward momentum, and its cinematic set pieces.  

I chose not to go back and watch North by Northwest, as the production deserves to be seen on its own terms . But if you are familiar with the film, his theatrical adaptation by Carolyn Burns and directed by Simon Phillips is a very faithful adaptation.

So faithful in fact that it begins to feel like the show’s creators have created a massive dare.

You think they cannot recreate Roger’s drunken race along the cliff? The crop dusting scene? The finale on Mt Rushmore?

The main set (co-designed by Phillips and Nick Schlieper) consists of metal frames which cover the back and sides of the stage – a configuration that recalls Saul Bass’s iconic title sequence for the film.

Floating frames descend and rise to simulate shifting settings, providing a sense of pace and creating a visual shorthand for elements like elevators, trains and phone banks. There is a lot of back projection homaging the technique used in the original film (and serving the same function). As well as backgrounds, back-projection is used to simulate the effect of close-ups and montage (a whirling newspaper showing Roger holding the knife).

All these production elements are eye-catching, but during the first half of the show I found the overall effect somewhat mixed.

There were points where it synced with the darkly comic tone; other times jokes and dramatic beats seemed obscured.

The show’s attempts to convert the cinematic as theatrical spectacle are more successful in the second half, where it felt like its creators moved from merely recreating the film to using the film’s setpieces as jumping-off points for more abstract and theatrical interpretations, including a rather surreal and hilarious take on Mt Rushmore.

The show is such an exercise in design and choreography that the cast feel like pieces being moved around a chessboard. 

Ryan O’Kane (Roger O. Thornhill) and Antonia Prebble (Eve Kendall) are functional as the lead players. 

O’Kane delivers Roger’s confusion, although the witty repartee is somewhat overshadowed by the constant shifts in mise-en-scene. I caught quite a few moments where jokes were missed because some piece of setting was moving into place.

If the show has one flaw, it is the disconnect between the leads. They feel like they are playing in completely different styles. 

In order to get over the character’s dual roles, Prebble goes broad in her introductory sequences – while it creates a disconnect with O’Kane, weirdly it feels in sync with the tone of the script. While it does not gel between the players, that choice is probably necessary for later plot revelations. 

Once the stakes increase, and the story slows down before the slam-bang finale, both actors are able to build a rapport. 

The supporting cast (Mustaq Missouri, Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson, Jonathan Martin, Michèle Hine, Andrew Grainger, Roy Snow,  Wesley Dowdell, Nicola Kāwana, Mel Odedra, Alvin Maharaj, Daniel Watterson and Andrew Laing) are the MVPs of the show. Playing multiple roles, they ensure that the show is not merely a technical exercise (Hine is particularly fun as Roger’s exasperated mother).

While impressive in scale and ambition, I did question whether rhe production’s metatextual qualities work for or against it. Will the show work for an audience who are not familiar with the film?

Based on the people I went with, the answer appears to be an enthusiastic yes.

The level of ingenuity and imagination to this adaptation makes the show worth experiencing as a stage production.

As a drama it is serviceable, but as a spectacle it is undeniable.  It may not have the suspense or the unique magic of Cary Grant, but this is a unique and multifaceted theatrical event in its own right.

North by Northwest plays ASB Waterfront Theatre 25th October to 19 November 2022.

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