Vertigo – the stage play

I’m sure most people are aware that “The 39 Steps” was recently turned into a highly successful stage play by playwright Patrick Barlow.

Well, it looks like the same has now been done for “Vertigo“. The Derby Evening Telegraph has a write up of the adaptation by Jonathan Holloway:

Holloway returns the psychological thriller to wartime Paris and, in supremely theatrical style, frames the tale of the tortured hero as a public demonstration of hypnosis.

Best known from Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation starring James Stewart – itself 50 years old in 2008 – VERTIGO has its origins in the novel D’entre les morts, published in English as The Living and the Dead and created by the hugely influential crime-writing partnership of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. With Boileau devising the plot and Narcejac developing characterisation, they were at the forefront of crime fiction’s evolution from “whodunnits”, centred on an impassionate detective, into psychological suspense dramas exploring the emotions of those directly caught up in crime. As such they proved inspirational to filmmakers: as well as Hitchcock’s Vertigo, international hit Les Diaboliques was taken from a Boileau-Narcejac novel and they contributed the screenplay to the grisly cult horror Les yeux sans visage.

Further information is available on the Nottingham Playhouse web site.

3 Responses to Vertigo – the stage play

  1. The Metro now has a write up of the play…

    Making your mark on a story that’s already been told is difficult. Especially when it has also been turned into a successful film by Alfred Hitchcock. But Giles Croft, who directs this new adaptation of Vertigo, is keen to distance Nottingham Playhouse’s production from the 1958 movie.

    ‘We’re not interested in recreating it,’ he explains. ‘The film is a fantastic piece of work but, with this adaptation, we’ve gone back to the original text.

    ‘Most people are familiar with the film, but the delight here is that there’s enough in the plot that will be recognisable, but with a lot of new elements to engage an audience that thinks it knows the story.’

    The original 1954 novel was penned by French crime-writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac under the title Sueurs Froides: D’Entre Les Morts (Cold Sweats: From Among The Dead). Hitchcock moved the action to San Francisco, but Croft has returned the hero, troubled former detective Roger Flavières (Ben Keaton), to Paris during World War II.

    ‘The war is an important element,’ Croft says. ‘You learn a lot about the motivations of the characters as a result of it. The fact that the Germans are just about to arrive in Paris puts pressure on them, and, after the war, we see how they dealt with living under a German regime.’

    But we first meet Flavières as a resident in a lunatic asylum, about to undergo hypnosis in a bid to conquer his demons.

    ‘The asylum story acts as a parenthesis to the main plot,’ Croft adds. ‘It tells us more about the character’s psychology. We witness his treatment as he regresses.’

    That story, of course, deals with Flavières’ distress after causing the death of a police colleague. He leaves the force and finds work following Madeline (Philipa Peak), the wife of an old friend, only to fall obsessively in love with her. She commits suicide, sending Flavières further into despair until, five years later, he meets a woman he believes to be her reincarnation. Things unravel quickly, and we learn how he comes to be in the care of Dr Jacques Ballard (David Acton).

    ‘Ballard is demonstrating his techniques,’ Croft adds, ‘but the treatment doesn’t necessarily achieve what he wants, so there’s an extra element of tension around how beneficial it actually is for Flavières.’

    Rather than simply serving as a neat plot device, this reflects medical history, with hypnosis popular at the end of the 19th century, before falling out of fashion over fears it could be damaging. But it then came back into use as a means of helping soldiers with post-traumatic stress syndrome after World War I.

    However, Croft insists these historical and psychological elements don’t detract from the thrilling twists for which the piece is famed. ‘Quite the opposite,’ he says. ‘It’s allowed a number of additional textures to be introduced to the story. It’s added extra energy.’

  2. Another write up, again from the Metro

    Vertigo fails to hit the heights

    Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 version of Vertigo, with James Stewart and Kim Novak, transformed the psychological twists of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel into a feat of visual invention that casts an inescapable shadow over this production.

    Jonathan Holloway’s adaptation takes the book as its source, restoring the wartime French setting and locating the action at the psychiatric hospital where Roger Flavieres (Ben Keaton) is undergoing therapeutic hypnosis at the hands of Dr Jacques Ballard (David Acton) and his assistant, Gratin (Robin Bowerman).

    Framed inside a medical lecture, as Ballard demonstrates his techniques and outlines his theories to the audience, Flavieres relives the case that saw him develop a dangerous obsession with a client’s wife, Madeleine (Phillipa Peak). Her death indirectly causes his fear of heights; traumatised, he seeks out Madeleine’s double, Renée (also Peak), only to find the tragic events repeated in a new form.

    The cod-Freudian theories place the piece squarely in its time, and much of the detail follows the film’s lead, with Madeleine, in particular, resembling the archetypal Hitchcock blonde.

    The twisty melodrama holds the attention well enough, but Giles Croft’s production suffers from its tendency to describe rather than fully dramatise its action, and Holloway’s script, devised for smaller venues, often feels more exposed than enhanced on the big stage.

  3. One more review, this time from The Guardian

    Vertigo – Playhouse, Nottingham

    Many consider Vertigo to be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement; few realise it was the French crime-writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s finest hour as well. For this stage adaptation, originally produced by Red Shift, Jonathan Holloway banishes Hitchcockian images of San Francisco and returns the action to wartime Paris.

    The vertiginous theme is underlined by the sense of a city teetering on the brink of occupation; the production also brings out the Orpheus and Eurydice theme, explicit in the novel, which Hitchcock chose to ignore. Roger Flavieres, a former detective with a poor head for heights, has a fleeting opportunity to reclaim the woman he loves from death: Orpheus was instructed never to look back, Roger must remember not to look down.

    Less felicitous is Holloway’s decision to expand Roger’s psychiatric recuperation into a framing device, so that the narrative is re-enacted by the patient in his pyjamas while undergoing hypnotherapy. Setting it in a clinic robs the book of much of its atmosphere by being a little, well, clinical.

    Worse still is the manner in which the action is continually interrupted by the therapist’s rather fatuous comments and observations. Imagine how annoying it would be if Hamlet’s psychiatrist kept interrupting to note: “To be or not be – that is a key phrase. The patient is contemplating suicide but having second thoughts.”

    Vertigo is such a multilayered narrative that Ben Keaton’s Roger occasionally seems to forget where he is: at one point he states that something occurred “the day before I died”, then corrects it to “the day before I left”. Turning Boileau and Narcejac’s story into a psychoanalytic treatise is a bold experiment – but some experiments are best left in the laboratory.


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