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New York Times (27/Apr/2014) - Coloring in a Hitchcock Profile



Coloring in a Hitchcock Profile

Sometimes the best refuge from real trauma is simulated terror. The English playwright David Rudkin remembers cowering under his bunk in an air-raid shelter as a child. It was the early 1940s, and German bombs were raining on his hometown, Birmingham. What dreams may come to a child who fears for his life? Menacing images from Alfred Hitchcock thrillers like "Rebecca," "Suspicion" and "Foreign Correspondent," naturally.

"As I lay on the floor in fright," Mr. Rudkin, 77, said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Worcestershire, "I would go through those films in my head, those scenes. I was retreating from real existential danger into this separate, imaginary world of anxiety."

It was a world to which he had only been exposed piecemeal, he explained, since his mother was in the practice of sneaking off with him to movie houses far from their home, where his father, an evangelical pastor, had strictly forbidden exposure to the "Babylon" of motion pictures. Even as Hitchcock's films gave his boyhood self the paradoxical thrill of being scared, the anxiety they provoked made him feel "as though I was being punished in the cinema for being there," Mr. Rudkin recalled. "I think Hitchcock would very much have appreciated that feeling."

This acute sense of guilty pleasure, imprinted in childhood and channeled into art, provides the inspiration for Mr. Rudkin's "The Lovesong of Alfred J. Hitchcock," which runs May 4 to 25 as part of the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters. Less a straightforward biographical drama than a ruminative psychological study, "Lovesong" sifts through Hitchcock's youth and early career for clues to the visual motifs and thematic obsessions -- inaccessible blondes with names that start with the letter "M," for instance -- that would recur in his work.

Though it inevitably plows some of the same fertile ground as recent movies about the filmmaker's private and professional life -- "Hitchcock," starring Anthony Hopkins, and HBO's "The Girl," starring Toby Jones -- "Lovesong" originated in 1993 as a radio play featuring Richard Griffiths (of "History Boys" and "Harry Potter" fame). Mr. Rudkin was persuaded to revisit the work when Jack McNamara, a young director who'd taken over the Nottingham-based touring company New Perspectives, went looking for a popular subject for a show.

"I had it in my mind to do something about Hitchcock, but I didn't know if such a play existed," Mr. McNamara said by phone. A friend told him about Mr. Rudkin's radio play, but a call to the playwright was not encouraging: "He told me it didn't exist anymore, and he didn't know where it was." A month later, a contrite Mr. Rudkin called to say he'd happened across the manuscript, "literally tied up with string."

Mr. McNamara had found his Hitchcock piece, though not in a stageable form. He asked Mr. Rudkin to rework the radio script into a fully embodied play. In adding visual elements to a piece "made for the ear," Mr. McNamara said he took inspiration from "what Hitchcock leaves out of his films: In the 'Psycho' shower sequence, for instance, a lot of people think you actually see Janet Leigh's naked breast, and the knife actually slashing her, but you never do. The audience does a lot of the imagining, and that's what disturbs them."

Similarly, the guiding idea behind both the radio play and the new "Lovesong," Mr. McNamara said, was to explore "the embryonic ideas that later took shape in the films we know, rather than showing images from the films themselves."

Likewise, the lead performance of Martin Miller -- a stocky but hardly corpulent actor in his late 30s, who will reprise his London performance in New York -- is less a spot-on impersonation of the filmmaker, who died in 1980, than an artful suggestion. Mr. McNamara quoted Mr. Rudkin as saying: "The Hitchcock in this play is less about the exterior and more about how he feels about his body. It's more important that we get the inside of him right, and then the outside will follow."

Mr. Miller, also reached by phone, said he watched films of Hitchcock -- the director became a kind of star by narrating droll introductions to his popular television series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents...- as well as the recent film turns by Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Jones. But those images of Hitchcock date from the late 1950s and '60s: "Lovesong" hops around in nonlinear fashion, giving Mr. Miller the challenge, and freedom, to show the filmmaker at various ages, even for a few moments as a baby.

"What's interesting is that when you see the Hitchcock cameos from his early films, he's not that heavy -- he's quite light on his feet, like an Oliver Hardy figure, quite graceful," Mr. Miller said.

Still, since the true setting of Mr. Rudkin's play is Hitchcock's inner life, movement is kept to a minimum; the focus, Mr. McNamara said, is on making "his imagination as vivid as possible onstage, because that's the main action the character's doing."

That Hitchcock could spend his career exploring the dark reaches of that imagination, yet simultaneously reach a huge popular audience, may be what impresses Mr. Rudkin most about his subject.

"He was able to develop an intensely private personal form of art, and yet do so in a way that spoke universally," marveled Mr. Rudkin, who makes no such claims for his own work. "I've never been able to manipulate an audience."

Emerging in 1962 with a shocking, homoerotic drama, "Afore Night Come," at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mr. Rudkin is considered influential in Britain but his works are not produced or revived as often as those of contemporaries like Harold Pinter and Howard Barker. His last New York production was "Ashes" at the Public Theater in 1977. ("Probably the most important play of the season," Clive Barnes wrote in his New York Times review of Mr. Rudkin's drama about an Irish couple trying in vain to have a child.)

About his return to the United States with "Lovesong," Mr. Rudkin could be describing his childhood self -- gaping at the screen and eager for the "Directed by" title card -- when he says, "I feel a mixture of excitement and apprehension."