Corey McMahon on directing The 39 Steps – Behind the Curtain

The director meditates on the magic of implausibility

“If you want to analyse everything in terms of plausibility, then you end up doing a documentary.” — Alfred Hitchcock

The 39 Steps by John Buchan was originally published in 1915 and was the first in a series of five novels featuring Richard Hannay, Buchan’s dashing would-be action hero. Buchan described the novel as a “shocker’, an adventure where the story is so unlikely that the reader is only just able to believe the events could actually happen.

The novel was a favourite of director Alfred Hitchcock and would influence the famous filmmaker long before he adapted it into his film of the same name. In a series of interviews from 1962 with French director and actor François Truffaut, Hitchcock revealed that Buchan’s novel was very much on his mind as he made his 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. He would go on to adapt The 39 Steps into the seminal thriller featuring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay the following year.

Hitchcock’s film has little to do with Buchan’s novel, with the director instead choosing to turn our hero’s plight into a fantastical episodic thriller with Hannay (a prototype of Hitchcock’s classic male protagonist, the ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances) lurching from one implausible scenario to another. The film moves at such a pace that the audience has little time to dwell on the believability (or otherwise) of the plot.

Patrick Barlow’s wonderfully ridiculous stage adaptation relies more on Hitchcocks’s film than Buchan’s novel. It certainly moves at the same cracking pace. But the genius of Barlow’s adaptation lies in the play’s ability to capture the implausibility of Hannay’s adventures as seen in Hitchcock’s thriller, remain faithful to Buchan’s original story and then set theatre makers the challenge of putting Hannay’s adventures on-stage.

And that is where the fun really begins.

Such was the success of State Theatre Company South Australia’s original production of The 39 Steps that it was inevitable the company would bring it back for another season. This production honours the comic brilliance of the original. It’s a theatrical tour de force for our amazing cast, led by Nathan Page, supported by Anna Steen and our wonderful clowns, Tim Overton and Charles Mayer. We have been blessed with an extraordinary creative team, Ailsa Paterson, Gavin Norris and Stuart Day, who have helped us find new and ingenious ways to stage the implausible and impossible!

Of course, the original production would not have been the success that it was without the vision and guidance of the original director, Jon Halpin. It’s been a privilege to step into his shoes and shepherd his original production.

Director Corey McMahon
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