Hitchcock Blonde

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

28/07/2006 - 19/08/2006

Production Details

By Terry Johnson
Directed by David Lawrence

Set by Peter King
Costume by Maryanne Wright-Smyth
Programme photos by Reg Graham

Original footage from the 1919 film and effects thanks to the Royal Court, London

A NZ premiere, Hitchcock Blonde by Terry Johnson ( The Graduate ) debuted at London’s prestigious Royal Court, a theatre devoted to new playwriting, in 2003 and after its successful season there transferred into the West End for a commercial season. It is a bold and challenging piece which will thrill and, we hope, terrorise audiences in Dunedin. The Fortune production will use original footage and film clips made for the Royal Court and West End production and is working with the people at Natural History NZ Limited on some of the filmic issues involved with staging this play.

There are two related plot threads in Hitchcock Blonde.  A present day Media Studies lecturer invites a young blonde student to accompany him on a trip to Greece where they will be investigating some canisters of deteriorating film that could be Uninvited Guest, a long-forgotten Hitchcock film dating from 1919.  Running parallel with this story is a behind the scenes tale involving Hitch and his relationship with Janet Leigh’s blonde body double on the shower-room set of Psycho.

The set for the Fortune Theatre production of Hitchcock Blonde will be designed by Peter King, and involves a working spa pool on stage, a projector for the movie footage from the Royal Court theatre and a few other surprises! Costume design by Wardrobe Mistress, Maryanne Wright-Smyth, and lighting and sound by Ulli Briese.

Danielle Mason
Patrick Wilson
Mark Neilson
Alistair Browning
Erin Banks

Theatre ,

As sleek and stylish as a blonde should be

Review by Barbara Frame 31st Jul 2006

The Hitchcock Blonde is a stereotype: coolly confident, a little smarter than she appears, oddly vulnerable. Terry Johnson’s play uses the image of the blonde to examine the idealised world of cinematic creation, and its intersection with the messy unpredictability of real life.

In 1999, on a Greek island, a media studies lecturer and a (blonde) student work their way through old reels of Hitchcock film. Forty years earlier, a character named Hitch assesses a woman known only as Blonde as a possible body-double for Janet Leigh in the Psycho shower scene.

Just as Hitch is obsessed with creating flawless screen images, Alex, the lecturer, is obsessed with Hitchcock and every detail of his work.

"To touch," says Hitch at one point, "is to court disaster."

And touching, in this play, means letting go of the perfection of the illusory, and the descent into the disorder of the actual. Having internalised the ideal of the Blonde, both men shrink from contact and the resultant emotional complications.

The Alex/Nicola and Hitch/Blonde stories unfold on different levels of the same set. Suspense, lighting, music, acting styles and film footage from the play’s production at the Royal Court Theatre, London, add to the cinematic atmosphere, and there’s something very like a horror-film murder.

Patrick Wilson is all portly self-importance, waiting to be punctured by a human touch, in the role of Hitch. Alistair Browning brings the appropriate fake cynicism to the role of Alex. New-age Nicola, the play’s most endearing character, is played with bounce and charm by Erin Banks, and Danielle Mason’s tough yet fragile Blonde seems entirely filmic.

Like the Blonde herself, David Lawrence’s production is stylish, controlled and edgy. Film festival-goers (and anyone else) will find a detour to the Fortune rewarding. Friday night’s capacity audience certainly did.


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Challenging and not to be missed

Review by Terry MacTavish 30th Jul 2006

Now this is more like it! The saccharine taste of the Fortune’s last offering (Waiting for Gateaux) is expunged by the spice of Hitchcock Blonde which set the taste-buds tingling at its NZ premiere on Friday. This is challenging and thrilling theatre and, as Dunedin word-of-mouth is legendary, it will doubtless play to full and enthusiastic houses.

I always have high hopes for any play that opens in London’s Royal Court, home of innovative theatre, and is then commercially successful enough to transfer to the West End, and I was not disappointed. Although Terry Johnson’s plot is convoluted and sometimes feels contrived, what the heck, like a classic Hitchcock movie it is too engrossing for that to interfere with the headlong excitement of following three fascinating and intertwining narratives, two live from 1999 and 1959, and one on celluloid from 1919.

This erotic-history-mystery genre is not new. In recent years Dunedin has seen Arcadia and Three Days of Rain (WOW and Fortune respectively, yet both directed with ferocious intelligence by Lisa Warrington) but it is still a treat to find theatre as stimulating as Hitchcock Blonde. It provides both the thrill of reading a gripping mystery novel and the insight that comes from watching relationships dissected before your very eyes, a study in dark obsessions …

The 1999 story involves a middle-aged film lecturer who has discovered mouldering reels of unreleased Hitchcock film from 1919. A lost masterpiece? He manages to persuade his student, an attractive blonde (what else?!), to join him on a Greek island to piece together the fragments while he gradually reveals the nature of his own obsession with more than the master film-maker. Stills from the rediscovered film, featuring a blonde in a bathtub, are projected onto the walls as we play detective to interpret the seemingly sinister events of 1919.

The 1950’s story is most gripping, including as it does Hitchcock himself and The Blonde – not the star, but Janet Leigh’s body double for the infamous shower scene in Psycho. She too is a blonde (natural "up to a point"), and ambitious to be more than a double – his next leading lady, no less, despite the handicap of a boorish and jealous husband. Given Hitchcock’s well-known sadism towards his cool blondes, their tense circling interviews are utterly engrossing.

As Hitchcock used to maintain, ‘There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it", and providing one applies ‘bang’ to both sex and violence, David Lawrence’s production follows this maxim faithfully and to superb effect. Lawrence seems to revel in the complexities of script and staging, subjugating all to the steady build-up of suspense, lightened by humour but climaxing in moments of pure horror. The cast is eagerly grasping the opportunities offered by all the psychological probing, and the acting is uniformly impressive.

As the nameless Blonde of the title, Danielle Mason makes the most of a character who is anything but dumb, as manipulative as she is manipulated. This blonde is extremely articulate, and more exhibitionist than victim. Considering her spellbinding speech about reaching orgasm while displayed naked on the set, she is less triumphantly brazen than might be expected in the nude scene, although her vulnerability has a touching beauty. In crackling dialogue she is easily if improbably a match for the mythic movie director. One of the funniest scenes has her cross-examining the master of suspense on how to dispose of a dead body.

Curious that Mason, who was last seen here in the controversial production of Lulu, is once more a construct of men’s desires, beset by grotesques, which is not too harsh a term for the misogynistic Hitch of Patrick Wilson. His interpretation is completely convincing, repellent but hypnotic, making outrageous remarks in a gloriously ghastly Cockney accent. "You will not be required to provide the blood". His dissection of a fish meal while sitting on a studio prop toilet is an image I must strive to forget if I am ever to enjoy sole again …Unfortunately for me Wilson’s was a most memorable performance.

As the menacing husband, Mark Neilson has terrific stage presence, which is certainly needed considering his is almost a silent role. When his brooding finally erupts into violence it is truly shocking. Eat your heart out, Brando, this guy Neilson can really smoulder in a singlet!

Alistair Browning and Erin Banks play the 90’s couple with confidence, continuing the exploration of the politics of seduction and sexuality, and conveying the excitement of piecing together the jigsaw from the past. But though interesting, these scenes lack the tension of the 50’s narrative, possibly because a young woman of the 90s is less likely to allow herself to become a plaything. Yet Browning makes a credible and sympathetic character of lecturer Alex, aged 46 years and 17 months, pining for the student who reminds him of his first crush, and eventually deciding sadly, "Friendship knocks love into a cocked hat." Too sympathetic, perhaps. I found it hard to credit later his callous betrayal of damaged and self-mutilating Nicola. Banks as Nicola is gutsy and direct, a failed Buddhist apologising to the mosquito she’s swiped but taking no crap from Alex until her heart proves to be her undoing.

The Fortune production has indeed been fortunate in securing the Royal Court’s original footage of wonderfully evocative fragments from the 1919 film, but has contributed its own impressive effects, including a spooky fantasy shower scene. Peter King has again waved his wand over the stage to create a striking two-storied set, though I did yearn for some blinding Greek colour to off-set the grainy black and white of the 50’s world. Maryanne Wright-Smyth’s touch was most clearly detectable in the elegant 50’s costumes – yes, black, white, and shades of grey.

And once again the programme is worth keeping if only for Reg Graham’s lovely photos and dramaturg Alister McDonald’s illuminating analysis of Sir Alfred. The Fortune is also to be commended for having the initiative to screen Hitchcock classics in the Hutchinson Studio each Sunday night of the season – a real Hitch-fest!

There you have it. A production not to be missed. Some slightly uncomfortable parallels, of course. How far are we all voyeurs? Isn’t that the nature of an audience? Are we in fact responsible for the Blonde’s tragic ‘lifetime of being looked at instead of loved?’

A second visit might help to make up my mind …


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