Around seven years ago, having had a taste of audiences’ enthusiasm for Alfred Hitchcock on stage when they produced the Australian and Hong Kong seasons of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps, Andrew Kay and Liza McLean, of Kay + McLean Productions, starting looking into whether they could get the rights to adapt Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1959 comedy spy thriller North by Northwest.

“We already had that relationship with putting Hitchcock on stage and we really adored that process,” says McLean. “North by Northwest was by far our favourite Hitchcock film and we felt that if there was an opportunity to put it on stage, it would be quite different to what they’d done with The 39 Steps, which was more of a farce.”

But how to stage a film that included numerous action sequences including a crop duster and a chase up Mount Rushmore? Kay and McLean had no idea, but they knew who to ask – director Simon Phillips, who agreed to come on board with writer Carolyn Burns as adaptor.

Using actors interacting with miniature dioramas, cameras and on-screen projections, Phillips and Burns devised an inspired version that won Kay + McLean Productions the stage rights and delighted audiences when the production premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company in 2015.

Since then, Kay + McLean Productions has toured the play to the Arts Centre Melbourne, to Bath in the UK, and Toronto in Canada. Now they are bringing the production to Brisbane, where it opens at QPAC on November 27, and to the Adelaide Festival Centre from December 29, with Matt Day as Roger O. Thornhill, the man on the run, and Amber McMahon as femme fatale Eve Kendall.

Amber McMahon and Matt Day in North by Northwest. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Very early in the creative process, Phillips brought composer Ian McDonald  on board. The two of them have collaborated on around 40 productions over the years (including Melbourne Theatre Company’s current production of Twelfth Night).

“We almost have a shorthand now,” says McDonald. ‘I’ll sit in the room and he’ll say ‘maybe something here’ and I know exactly what the ‘something’ he wants is because I’ll be watching how the actors work, watching as he describes ‘I need a piece of scenery to come in and the actors to arrive in nine seconds’. I’ve worked very closely with him for many years, so with this there was a very common language we had in talking about what we should do.”

McDonald is a classically trained musician, who studied piano and singing (his vocal coaches included Dame Joan Hammond). His move into theatre happened almost by accident. “I was working as a singer pretty much, just doing bits and pieces, recordings and concerts. And then I was asked by two folk musicians who didn’t read or write music at all but were wonderful players… if I would help them write down the music they were going to compose for a play [The Three Musketeers ] onstage. And that was actually with Simon Phillips. That was the very first time I met Simon. It was also my very first time working in theatre so it was something of a revelation. The three of us worked together. Those two musicians came up with songs and musical ideas and I wrote them down and added my two bobs’ worth so together we came up with a score for the play. And I actually ended up playing on the stage for that with the other two musicians. I’ve done that for many years now,” he says.

“So that happened and for the first time I was suddenly earning a nice little wage for the duration of that project. And that was very successful so Simon asked me to do it again on his next production which was Serious Money.” That was 1988. Thirty years on they are still collaborating.

Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest famously features music by Bernard Herrmann. “The idea was that we would use some of the original score but not all of it,” says McDonald. “There’s a signature piece right at the start which sort of sets the tone of the film brilliantly, which accompanies the opening titles. And it’s probably the most well known because it’s a piece of music that pretty much stands on its own, and it has been played in concert halls. It’s a fantastic piece. The designers and the director wanted to do a stage version of the opening titles to set the piece off., which they devised brilliantly. So that was the obvious starting point. We just simply put [Herrmann’s music] up.”

The rest of the production features a bit more of Herrmann’s music, including the dramatic sequence when they are climbing Mount Rushmore, along with 90 percent of new music by McDonald.

North by Northwest. Photograph © Jeff Busby

“I made myself very aware of the Herrmann music. It is absolutely brilliant [and] I didn’t want [my music] to sound alien to that. I wanted to be in the same style. When I looked at his score, he had percussion and strings and woodwind and brass. So I thought that should be my palette. I wrote a brand new love theme, which is kind of dotted throughout the production as it is through the film as well. Rather than use his love theme, I thought I’ll write a new one for a string quartet, but very much in the style of the films of the late 50s. And as I looked at his score and got to know his language, I got to know the feel, the style and the orchestrations, so I set about using those colours.”

As well as using a string quartet, McDonald used solo violin, and a group of 12 brass players. He developed the music over two workshops, and was then in the rehearsal room everyday responding to what emerged: “looking at the energies that the director needed for the scene, looking at the way the dialogue worked, and doing some sketches of underscoring,” he says.

“And then when we came to rehearse the production proper, again I was in the room all day every day. And then I set about scoring the whole thing and took it to the musicians and we had some dedicated recording sessions near the end of the rehearsal room once we set the timings and so on. And so then I did a mix and laid down the master tracks.”

The music is just one nifty element in a production that has been described by critics as “ingenious”, “mind boggling”, “brilliantly reimagined”, “A-grade entertainment”, “slick, wry and clever”.

“It’s super clever the way it’s been done,” says McLean. “The combination of miniatures and live actors is so clever it takes some people in the audience a little while to realise that it’s all happening live. Nothing is hidden. So when the crop duster scene happens, for example, one of the actors walks on stage holding a stick with an aeroplane attached to the end of it, and he’s wearing flight goggles. He then turns around and he manipulates the plane in front of a camera, which is then projected on the screen behind him. So you do get the big moments of the film but delivered to you in such a genius theatrical way that it just makes you part of the journey and the process, so it’s lots of fun.”


North by Northwest plays at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, November 27 – December 9, and at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, December 29 – January 20

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine