Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • HITCHCOCK BLONDE • Royal Court Theatre • 2003

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Rosamund Pike [Variety]

The second scene of Hitchcock Blonde offers us the sight of Alfred Hitchcock painstakingly filleting Dover sole while dining with a young actress desperate to be cast in his film. This image is repeated metaphorically throughout the play: young women, vulnerable through circumstances, having their brains, emotions and sexual beauty filleted by powerful older men.

Terry Johnson has a glittering theatrical record of presenting dominant men of the arts and sciences in pursuit of their beautiful blonde subjects, and the choice of famous personality in this play, known for treating his heroines to repeated shocks and stabbings, reminds us of the short step between being a subject and being a victim. In an uneven, long and self-indulgent production, his exposition of the famous Hitchcock ideal of ‘the cool blonde with the fire beneath’ is one of the most successful dramatic realisations. She is incarnated by the still and poised Rosamund Pike, who portrays her as if ‘possessed by a spirit’, as the real Hitchcock wanted his Vertigo heroine. Moreover, not only she but the modern-day media student of the main plot show signs of being ‘suicidal neurotics’. These are satisfying resonances; but of course Johnson isn’t giving us a Hitchcock biopic. A media lecturer’s discovery of old film footage is the catalyst for debates about the shifting power in the relationships between men and women and between fact and fiction; and the restoration of the film-in-the-play is an opportunity for Johnson and the designer William Dudley to show off the latest technical effects that contemporary theatre is capable of. David Haig as Alex is able to embrace a video realisation of a woman, under a real shower, with as much pleasure as he does a flesh and blood one.

The plot is driven by three traditional stories: mystery or treasure hunt story, ghost story and love story. None of them are entirely successful. It’s a single-tracked and sometimes boring trail, through wordy terrain, lit at intervals along the way by beautiful poetic imagery and witty aphorisms. Story-telling is itself one of the major themes. The four main characters are all adept at it; though with the exception of Hitchcock, their subject is themselves.

Johnson takes full advantage of a poet’s licence with the truth about Hitchcock: though it contains an impersonation of the man himself, and references and allusions to his work, most notably the presence of attractive but damaged blondes, the facts are inaccurate, which must be distracting to a Hitchcock purist. Something fishy about the idea of Hitchcock fleeing England in 1919 after failing to complete a film, drove even this ignorant critic to do some research. This contradiction between presenting an accurate impersonation of a real person, rather than just allusions, and then making up a whole chunk of his life, is compounded by the fictional, present-day characters being media academics searching for the facts and discussing film-making technicalities in detail. Johnson, like his character Alex (I wanted to write alter ego, but I have no factual basis for it) thus continually teases us with truth and lies, deceptions and self-deceptions, condoning both. Appearances are as valid as realities: assuming an appearance of belief or emotion or better still making up a story about it, is as good as experiencing it. Alex, alluding to his propensity for one-night stands, says he is ashamed, but the way David Haig says it we don’t believe him: he seems to luxuriate in it. He is satisfied that an admission of guilt for the pain he has inflicted on the young woman involved, absolves him of responsibility. Haig is excellent at showing this self-congratulatory, smug side of the character, but it’s at the price of our sympathy; and technically his performance is too pat to be convincing, though he is too skilled an actor not to be entertaining some of the time.

Unfortunately, as we rely on them to be our guides through the play, Fiona Glascott as his student Nicola is too vocally abrasive and monotonous to engage us. In their opening scenes, we don’t believe Nicola and Alex are embarking on their quest for the first time: there are very dull patches, for which the director must bear responsibility. He may know that there are twists and turns of plot and a film projection and video realisation and special effects and water works and nudity and bleeding corpses to come, but the audience doesn’t, and, impatient for diversion after a long day, we long for something exciting to happen, a change of light, a beautiful apparition, to relieve the drab set and droning dialogue. Relief is felt when the sun first comes out on Karpathia, where the set starts revealing its magic secrets, and when at last Rosamund Pike is allowed to move away from the confines of a chair and table so we can contemplate her risen beauty. One gets the same relief when she’s allowed to put a glamorous dress over her bra and slip, a combination of clothing that makes a woman look more vulnerable than being completely naked.

The mesmerising quality of beauty is at once an exalted theme of the play — ‘a lifetime of being looked at instead of loved’ — and a conveniently exploitable production asset. Having Hitchcock as its subject provides a ready-made justification for displaying gratuitous nudity and pathological sexual behaviour: an actress appears naked because Hitchcock filmed body-doubles naked; an older man gets away with psychologically abusing a beautiful younger woman, because Hitchcock did. The degradation of the women is all the more humiliating because Johnson emphasises the potential power of their intelligence as well as of their beauty. The Blonde will do what she’s asked because she’s desperate for a film part to raise her from the misery of living in poverty with a violent husband (Owen McDonnell giving reality to a grotesque part); but she has a mind of her own and is as capable of labyrinthine and macabre plotting as Hitchcock: ‘I have a natural intelligence that belies my background. So I have been told many times by men older, classier and less intelligent than I.’ In Rosamund Pike’s compelling performance there is a superb dignity about her ambition: ‘…I will ascend.’

Johnson endows both the damaged young women characters in his play with shining intelligence. The young student starts off in a position of sexual power, spiritedly resisting her middle-aged seducer; he rubs in his seniority over her but she is the one, not him, who works out the truth about the unfinished film and the fate of the 1919 blonde. Alex’s sadistic seduction of her follows the ancient pattern used by sexual predators to entrap young girls: he disarms by poetic flattery, fakes vulnerability to win sympathy, then, assured of her dependency he possesses her, only to discard her. Artistically, this may serve as a corollary to Hitchcock’s notorious pleasure in watching rather than in penetration, but it’s just too perfect a mid-life male’s fantasy to endure uncritically. The real Hitchcock famously never touched; Johnson’s Alex has to touch, once, and then reject; thereby having his cake and eating it. He gets carnal pleasure without having to bother with moral and emotional responsibility. Nicola’s analysis of his inability to engage is kinder: ‘Because touching makes us real,’ she says with characteristic insight. He’s forever searching for the next incarnation of his feminine ideal: ‘Touching me wakes you from the dream of someone else you’d rather touch,’ she tells him, which is a very poetic and tolerant way of looking at Alex’s selfish promiscuity. How convenient for a middle-aged shit to have as his chief apologist his own prey. The play cunningly pre-empts our moral objections to Alex’s behaviour, partly through his endless disingenuous self-justifications. He says himself that he’s a man on the slide, but we don’t necessarily find his compulsive longing to have sex with his students as ‘endearing’ as he does. He tries to beguile us with his self-knowledge — ‘I was ashamed before it began’ — but he has no intention of changing. He is more interested in his narratives about himself. Self-knowledge is an indispensable attribute of the artist, but without the capacity for self-improvement it is not a personal virtue.

Johnson gets round the ethics of this distinction by giving Nicola not just an awareness of what’s happening to her, so that she is complicit in her own seduction, but an apparently bottomless capacity for forgiveness that lets Alex off the hook at the end. She is his only judge in the play, and does not blame him for cruelty; but we may think that a man like Alex must know, after a lifetime of seducing twenty-year olds, that being rejected cuts them deep. One suspects that he envies their capacity to feel intensely and enjoys the ease with which he can manipulate it. The play wants us to believe that though damaged previously in her life she isn’t really Alex’s victim because she knows before she consents to sex that she’s been ‘taken hostage’ by a man in mid-life crisis. She’s even wised up on all the psychological causes of his behaviour, and condones it even as she ridicules it. Students of the media know just too much: life is lived ironically. At the end, neither of the hurt women turns out to be seriously injured at all.

‘The gaze of love denied is a murderous gaze’ (Nicola’s line, of course) but not in Johnson’s passionless world, it isn’t. Though one would not exchange it for a bloodbath, the happy end is dealt with very unconvincingly and is an anti-climax for the patient audience. The three strands of the plot are tied up in a series of theatrical banalities. The obsessed scholar gets to see the ghost of his Master; readings from old newspaper cuttings fill in the gaps in the plot; the wronged heroine forgives the incorrigible hero in a downstage monologue.

Witnessing Nicola’s deterioration into whinging neurosis when she is rejected is sickening to watch; but it’s hard to be really sorry for her as a character. In this performance, some of her confessional speeches sound as if they come from a therapist’s book of test cases. Her flashes of insightful analysis of filmmaking and human motivation combined with exhibitionist sulking-fits make her look less like instinctive wild child genius than whiny adolescent with behavioural problems. She lacks the genuine mercurial quality that would have made the character sympathetic.

Johnson, as director, does not inject spontaneity and flexibility into any of the performances. The same rehearsed-by-rote tone pervades the whole production but to much better effect with the other characters: it lends a doomed quality to Rosamund Pike’s possessed Blonde, and suits the ponderous delivery of William Hootkins’s Hitchcock while he savours every morsel of food and language, finally achieving a rather touching portrayal rather than a mere mimicry turn. But their scenes take time to warm up, too, begging the question if the self-indulgence of the direction is due to it being vested in the author. Too many of the long speeches are leaden, the undoubted quality of the writing almost obscured by the delivery, unrelieved by variety of tone or movement. As the actors are patently too talented not to be capable, one speculates that the director is so familiar with the power of the play as it is written, that he neglects the necessary dynamics of lifting it off the page for the audience. There are too many good Hitchcockian thriller devices deployed not to make you stay for the dénouement, and too many lyrical phrases hanging in the air to stop you listening, and too many moral issues not to keep you questioning and too many glimpses of blonde beauty not to keep you looking; but these luminous fragments do not make up a coherent dramatic whole. We will have to wait and see if any improvements are made for the West End transfer, which the prestige and hype of this production has already won for itself.

C J Sheridan © May 2003

Originally published on R&V on 05-06-03

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