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The Guardian (07/Apr/2003) - Review: Hitchcock Blonde

(c) The Guardian (07/Apr/2003)

Hitchcock Blonde

Terry Johnson has always been preoccupied with sex, death and popular culture which makes it natural that he should turn his attention to Alfred Hitchcock. Although his new play is both overwrought and overlong, it pleasurably combines Hitchcock's eerie romanticism with a study in erotic obsession.

Ambitiously, Johnson interweaves three different time zones. In 1999, we see a middle-aged media professor and his young student decamping to his Greek island villa to try to piece together the few surviving reels of an early Hitchcock work. Forty years earlier, we watch as Janet Leigh's body double for the shower scene in Psycho falls under the intense scrutiny of the movie-maker himself. And eventually, we get to see a re-creation of the "lost" 1919 Hitchcock film that may (or may not) explain the source of the director's fixation with persecuted blondes.

At times you feel that Johnson, in his densely textured evocation of Hitchcock's work, is the man who knew too much. Psycho weaves its way through the whole play, while Hitch's desire to dominate and transform the Janet Leigh stand-in into a lost love object reminds us of Vertigo. And, although it is never mentioned, Rear Window is omnipresent: in the play, as in the film, we become willingly enlisted voyeurs, gazing on Rosamund Pike's Blonde as she strips for action.

But, although Johnson's play is overly referential and goes down too many side alleys, it is perceptive and funny about the gap between celluloid dreams and reality. This Hitchcock is a sad figure who achieves through the camera a physical intimacy denied to him in life. In the same way, David Haig's wonderfully observed professor gets close to his adored student only through the restoration of a few frames of desiccated film. Obsession, Johnson implies, is a poor substitute for love, and scopophilia a thin alternative to sex.

Another director might have been more ruthless with the text. But Johnson's production has enormous visual panache thanks to William Dudley's video designs, which, in their sweeping shots of Greek islands, echo his dazzling work on The Coast of Utopia. Haig's melancholy, late-flowering lust is sharply offset by Fiona Glascott's astringency as his semiotically gifted student. And William Hootkins's astonishing re-creation of Hitchcock, down to the jutting lower lip and porpoise-like walk, is radiantly countered by Pike's air of damaged beauty.

The play's insidious fascination, though, lies in its suggestion that theatre, as much as film, turns us all into furtively guilty spectators.