Alfred Hitchcock, the man, the master, the myth, is one of the most recognisable names (and figures) in film history. Furthermore, Psycho is one of the most analysed films in film studies, with entire books devoted solely to the shower scene, a topic that seems more suited to a student essay. Such is the case for Nicole, played by Libby Waite, in John Holden’s production of Terry Johnson’s Hitchcock Blonde at the Maddermarket Theatre. Her arrogant and pretentious lecturer Alex, played by Edward Wallis, invites her to spend the summer in Greece with him analysing footage from a “lost Hitchcock masterpiece”, and this research trip rapidly turns into confrontations with identity, history, sexuality and responsibility.
The story of Alex and Nicola is played out in the downstage half of the Maddermarket stage, the expanse suggesting the freedom promised by the Greek island in contrast to the psychological traps and manipulations that both Alex and Nicola play on each other. Similar powerplay occurs upstage in a parallel narrative about the filming of Psycho, as Hitchcock (John Mangan) auditions a young Blonde (Gemma Johnston) as a body double for the shower scene. This part of the stage is far more cluttered with set, props and furniture, adding to the sense of claustrophobia that both the Blonde, and as it turns out, Hitchcock, experience. While at first both Nicole and the Blonde seem at the mercy of their senior male counterparts, not to mention the Blonde’s abusive husband (Dave Myers), tables turn and power changes hands.
Hitchcock Blonde works both as a compelling psycho-sexual drama, which manages some very funny moments, and an extrapolation of film history and semiotics. As a film scholar, there was a great deal for me to enjoy (not to mention recognise) in terms of how individual frames can be interpreted, meaning read into particular cuts, the production context and practice pieced together from fragmentary information. To the play’s great credit, it does not descend too far into film geekery, keeping the emphasis on the characters’ excitement over their findings, especially when these are at the expense of human interaction. Wallis makes Alex pitiful but still understandable, while Nicole’s gradual warming to him and eventual disappointment is easy to empathise with, thanks to Waite’s performance of deep resentment, pain and barely suppressed rage. The Blonde undergoes a significant transformation, Johnston delivering a spell-binding performance of fragility and fear, that develops into strength and resolve, all the while seeming on the verge of a breakdown that only manifests in a final, shocking climax. As her antagonist/mentor, John Mangan who embodies Hitchcock in extraordinary detail, capturing the stance, the gestures and the voice with uncanny accuracy, the gauze that covers upstage giving him the appearance of archive footage of the great man. But Mangan does not simply deliver an impersonation, as he imbues Hitchcock with depth, flaws and fears, making him both compelling and creepy.
Overall, Hitchcock Blonde is a delight for theatre fans and a special treat for film buffs. Thrills, laughs and shocks are available in abundance, but the strongest impression I took away was melancholia. Alex is ultimately desperately sad, trying to recapture a sense of youth through new discoveries about Hitchcock and a fling with a woman half his age, while Nicole’s grappling with her own demons delivers little catharsis and one can imagine her remaining scarred both in body and mind. Meanwhile, Hitchcock emerges as a figure tortured by memory, desire and past sins, using film to work through his problems. As for the Blonde, her arc opens the play out to wider concerns around domestic abuse, indicating the agony of such relationships and their tragic consequences.