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The many levels of Buchan’s ‘39 Steps’

Alfred Hitchcock made it a thriller, but the same text serves as a farce when on the stage.

When the call came to direct “The 39 Steps,” William Roudebush had never read John Buchan’s novel or seen any of the four film adaptations, including the most famous version — and the basis for Patrick Barlow’s play — by Alfred Hitchcock.

“If you go back and watch the Hitchcock film after you’ve seen the play, it’s very interesting,” says Roudebush. “It’s exactly the same dialogue but it has nowhere near the same effect in the two mediums. I’ve been directing plays for 40 years and I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I think audience members will have the same reaction.”

While it features a touch of the master’s sly humor, Hitchcock’s 1935 film is a taut thriller; Barlow’s play, on the other hand, is flat-out farce, with four actors playing more than 150 characters, dashing through set and costume changes at a breakneck pace.

Roudebush, celebrating 25 years of work at the Walnut Street Theatre, gave himself a crash course in Hitch’s oeuvre to devise his approach to the production. “I tried to fuse the cinematic and theatrical worlds together,” he says, “so that it would look and feel like a movie but have the present-tense sense of a creative, physical, live theater event.”

 
 
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