Friday, 13 March 2009

Transporting theatre

The Thirty-Nine Steps, Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, February 12 – March 7

From the moment that Mike Edward steps on stage as Richard Hannay looking dashing in a suit, this is a top-notch performance. Like an action thriller crashed into a farce, it is fast-paced, constantly amusing and excellently timed, as one episode follows swiftly on the well-shod heels of another.

I could tell you about the far-fetched plot, which involves a conspiracy to murder the Greek premier Karolides, ‘the one barrier between Europe and Armageddon’ and plunge Europe into war, but it’s really incidental to the play. It is 1914 in Britain; there are spies and espionage a-plenty alongside references to the Balkan powder keg we all learned about at school. It’s not really giving anything away to confirm that actually Karolides is assassinated and war does break out, so as saving-the-day-heroes go, Hannay isn’t essentially all that effective.

Author, John Buchan claimed that this novel was his first ‘shocker’, by which he meant an adventure combining personal and political dramas, where the events in the story are unlikely. Director, Ross Gumbley has taken this to extremes and smashed the illusion of theatre with a sledgehammer.

The ‘special’ effects are fabulous – the anti-CGI back-lash has the potential to be as forceful as the anti-political-correctness espoused by the likes of Life on Mars. Whether hanging from a bridge, undertaking a high-speed car chase, running alongside a train or being pursued by a bi-plane, the staging and setting of these scenes is fantastically ludicrous. There is an element of Spike Milligan in the use of stage doors and ‘swimming’ across the stage, which the audience appreciates with laughter and applause.

These gestures work so well, because the cast play them straight. It would have been tempting for Edwards to play Hannay as Hugh-Laurie-as-Prince-Regent-esque (and the play itself is a little bit The Fast Show meets Blackadder), but he remains steadfast. His asides to the audience are delightful, as he fills them in on his thoughts and plot developments; ‘verification arrived with my boiled egg’. Even when the characters come into the audience, they are never a part of it, and when one of the audience members is kidnapped as a hostage, he is later heckled by the cast when he is released and returns to his seat.

There is also a dream-like quality to some of the sequences, begun with the ‘turbaned wonder’ Marmaduke Mesmer (Cameron Rhodes) who hypnotises Hannay into a suggestible trance. Cameron Rhodes also plays Franklin P Scudder, who sets off the chain events by revealing his suspicions to Hannay, with an ‘accent West of Swindon’ (it’s American) in terms that ‘could out-metaphor a Kipling’, and then being mysteriously murdered in a dramatic death scene.

When the actors take their final bow, it is hard to believe that there were only four of them – Lisa Chappell and Stephen Papps making up the fantastic foursome. This is testament to the way they people the stage with myriad incidental characters from the leering milkman to the psychotic brattish schoolgirl or the passengers on a train. Whether butlers, policemen or navvies, each one is entirely persuasive.

In his programme notes, Gumbley writes that the set – a steel box with hidden doors – was designed to capture Hannay’s paranoia, ‘sense of being trapped and constantly pursued’. It certainly succeeds, and for all the laughter and mockery, this is a darker undercurrent running through the play. It is farcical to see people popping out of doors and the physical theatre of drugged-up wobbly legs is hysterical, but the dreams can turn to nightmares as ‘we never question what we expect to see.’

The Thirty-Nine Steps confronts a number of expectations, not least what and where are the titular steps themselves? Hannay, who cuts his bread into soldiers, mocks the Scottish accent and is bored back in England after living in the ‘strange dark continent’ that is Africa, is described as being ‘very clever – or very stupid’. In this play the line between the two is blurred.

When he has to make a speech from the hustings under a mistaken guise, he stumbles through his oratory but nevertheless delivers moments of passion, although he is told he ‘started poorly, flagged in the middle and tailed off at the end’. He plays the stuffed shirt Brit admirably and appealingly. To the strains of Holst’s Planet Suite a German attempts to seduce him into his dastardly plan (involving, I think, lighthouses, submarines and airships) cajoling him to ‘be on the winning side for once’. ‘Never!’ he answers, without a trace of irony.

I arrived at the theatre after spending an hour in traffic and road-works, searching for a place to park. Why is there nowhere to park at the Maidment? I heard other late-comers complain about this too, and the production started 15 minutes late to accommodate all those other hot, bothered and harassed audience members. The front-of-house staff were frantic and disorganised, leaving me stressed, with a headache, and in a bad mood.

This was all totally dissolved by the spoof-like entertainment before me, which is what good theatre should do – it took me out of myself and transported me to another place, or rather, places.

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