When Canada’s 15th Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir, was simply a young Scottish diplomat and novelist named John Buchan, he couldn’t have imagined one of his spy thrillers would be a wildly popular stage comedy nearly 100 years later.
But that’s exactly what has happened with Buchan’s 1915 novel, The 39 Steps.
Along the way, it also formed the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 black-and-white film of the same name, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, as well as three other cinematic treatments.
This week, the Guild Theatre’s production of Patrick Barlow’s award-winning stage version opens, under the direction of Clinton Walker.
If Buchan were still alive, he might even recognize some of it – at least from the Hitchcock treatment, which hit the screen the year he assumed his vice-regal duties in Canada.
In Barlow’s hands, the story owes more to Hitchcock than to Buchan. But it’s told with far more comedic flair than even the master filmmaker managed.
George Maratos stars as playboy Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps PHOTO: Gary Bremner www.garybremner.com
Call it a send-up of Hitchcock’s send-up of Buchan.
Here’s how Walker sketches the plot, which takes place just before World War Two:
“Richard Hannay, a bachelor playboy, a lay-about, decides in his late 30s that his life is boring and lacking in adventure and surprise. So he sets out to change that and heads out to London’s West End to see a show, where he meets a mysterious German woman named Annabella Schmidt.”
After a gun is fired in the theatre, Hannay takes Schmidt home with him.
“This sets in motion a whole chain of events which gets him wrapped up, not only in a murder investigation, but in the actions of an international spy ring.”
But here’s where the fun comes in.
“The audience learns very quickly that this isn’t going to be a historical narrative drama, where one sits backs and learns. It really is a show where people, hopefully, will be surprised and delighted almost continuously. At least once a page. That’s my aim,” Walker says
The 39 Steps has only four actors. In Walker’s production, George Maratos is Hannay, while Carrie-Anne Burgess plays Schmidt and two other characters, “a respected, conservative heroine, Pamela” and “our Scottish lass, Margaret”.
Then there are what Barlow calls “the clowns” – two actors who, between them, play some 60 separate roles.
“It is an absolute hoot to watch Eric Epstein and Anthony Trombetta hit the floorboards in about 40 wigs and a costume change every 30 seconds,” Walker says.
Although Walker describes himself as a “minor disciple” of Alfred Hitchcock, ironically, he saw the original film version of The 39 Steps for the first time just last November.
“His work with the camera was always so stunning and groundbreaking, and really lends itself quite beautifully to this sort of vaudevillian representation of the story.”
This is Walker’s third directorial stint in Whitehorse in as many years. In 2010, he direct The Laramie Project, and last year he staged the Guild’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
The Toronto director is quick to admit that tackling an assignment sometimes called “Alfred Hitchcock meets Monty Python” has required a lot of stretching to solve some tricky staging problems.
“I’m not walking through territory where I’ve been before, so it’s a great challenge for me,” he says.
“How do you a scene inside a moving train that then passes through a tunnel, and two actors then jump to the exterior of the train, and then jump off the train onto the train bridge?”
For a show with over 200 sound cues, about 150 props and lighting cues that were still being determined two weeks before opening, Walker is equally quick to praise his design team of Al Lowen (sets), Elliot Hamilton-Boucher (light and sound), Amber Church (props) and Kaori Torigai (costumes).
“This play was built for a theatre with wings and with flies. Things have to come in and out all over the place,” he says.
“The Guild has none of that. We had to be clever in a way, where things happen magically, and yet we don’t have the luxury of the Yukon Arts Centre.”
With a lightning-paced storyline that roams from the London Palladium to a crofter’s cottage on the Scottish moors and beyond – whose construction resembles TV sketch comedy more than traditional dramatic narrative – Walker is blunt about the challenges facing his cast.
“It really is about courage, more than anything. It’s the kind of play that if you second-guess a choice, you’re going to get caught, and the train is just going to run right over you.”
As for what the audience should expect, Walker says the narrative structure is shaped so that, “You really don’t have to hang onto the plot line while you’re watching it. Stories start and stop, secondary plots start and stop at the drop of a hat.”
The playwright, he suggests, intended audience to “kind of surrender to the silliness of it all, and really just have a good time.”
And for hardcore Buchan (or Hitchcock) fans, he says, the ending does reveal what – or who – is meant by the “39 Steps”.
The 39 Steps runs Wednesday to Saturday at the Guild Hall until February 25. Curtain time is 8 p.m.
Ken Bolton is a former What’s Up Yukon co-editor who now calls himself a Yukoner in exile