The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyric Theatre Spring-Autumn 2003
If I say that Terry Johnson's new play, transferred from the Royal Court (and, judging from its co-producers, on its way to Broadway), is a study of the subtle semiotics of sex and cinema, I might scare you off (not least, by my excessive alliteration).
But in fact it is a fascinating psychological and philosophical mystery drama with more than its share of laughs, thrills and surprises - thus quite nicely reflecting and saluting its subject.
It was long ago noticed that film director Alfred Hitchcock had a preference for cool Nordic blondes as his damsels-in-distress - Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedron and the like - and since his death in 1980 revisionists have searched for dark Freudian meanings to this pattern.
On one level, Johnson's play offers a guess at the answer, as a modern film scholar unearths fragments of a hitherto-unknown very early Hitchcock film that offers tantalising clues.
But the play moves beyond this to raise some thought-provoking questions about the sexual power of the film camera, and thus of our relationship as audiences to those same cool blondes.
While that scholar, and a female student he lusts after, are literally piecing together isolated frames of the rediscovered film, the play flashes back to the time of Hitchcock's most notorious film, Psycho, to consider the anonymous actress who worked for a single day as a body double for Janet Leigh in the iconic shower scene.
As she goes through the then-rare experience of a nude scene, as the film scholar descends to the most despicable of ploys to seduce his student, and as we see glimpses of the imagined early Hitchcock film, fascinating parallels and insights develop.
The director setting up the most intimate of camera shots and then walking away to let his assistants do the actual shooting is as cruel as the teacher who achieves his seduction and then loses interest in the girl, turning his attention to the film analysis.
The actress discovers that being watched by the entire crew is actually sexually empowering, while a chaste dinner with the director is humiliating simply because he seems oblivious to her sexuality.
In the right circumstances the casual, nonsexual touch of a hand can be more invasive than the erotically-charged camera.
And we, who just sit there in the dark watching the results of all this - what is our complicity in the various invasions and thefts of self?
Again, don't let that scare you off. There's an engrossing mystery story at the centre of this play, a parody mystery (with a murder that may not be a murder) hovering around its edges, and a great deal of dark and rueful humour along the way.
With the author directing, David Haig brings his amiable shaggy dog quality to the scholar, keeping the guy attractive even as we discover what an absolute bastard he is, while Fiona Glascott makes it believable that his cynical, sharp-witted student (a blonde, of course) could still fall under his spell.
Rosamund Pike makes the body double a complex woman, torn between modesty and ambition, combining without contradiction a powerful instinct for self-preservation and a passive complicity in her own exploitation.
Playing Hitchcock without lapsing into parody is very difficult, since the man cultivated a public image which was half parody, and William Hootkins doesn't always avoid the trap.
But he does allow us glimpses of the pain and yearning that Johnson imagines to have been the filmmaker's driving force.
William Dudley's designs include some very effective video projections that keep the play's multiple settings distinct while contributing to its exploration of the ambiguous nature of the projected image.
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