A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure to see the play THE 39 STEPS at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Originally, the novel on which the play was based was written by John Buchan in 1915. In 1935 it was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. As of late, it has been adapted by Patrick Barlow into a hilariously funny comedy and it has been performed around the world. Since it was so successful, it has been extended to various theaters numerous times.
The penultimate British character Richard Hannay, the pencil-mustached, tweed-wearing protagonist and narrator, returns from a long trip to his flat in London. At a play he meets the German spy Annabella Schmitt, who eventually ends up mysteriously dead in his apartment. Now the number one suspect in this murder case, Hannay is on the run from the police. Just before her death, Annabella cryptically referred to the 39 Steps; with no other leads to pursue, he singlehandedly tries to crack the secret of her mysterious statement. This task brings him to Scotland, where he seeks out a certain Professor who might be able to reveal the secret, thus plunging him further into the classic circle of an innocent man on the run so notably attributed to Hitchcock. During his adventurous journey he meets Margaret and Pamela, his two leading ladies.
Remarkably, only four actors play all the 139 characters appearing during the play. Hannay is the only character that portrays a single person; one woman and two men brilliantly cycle through the remaining characters, happily playing on the audience’s understanding of the role-swapping. Costume changes were often made on stage, and clever visual tricks such as shadow puppetry enhance the slapstick aspect of the play. Most scenes are a spot on reproduction of Hitchcock’s adaption of the novel.
Just at the very end, it is revealed to the audience what The 39 Steps really are and Hannay prevails.
So far, The 39 Steps have been performed in the UK as well as in the US, Italy and South Africa and it will shortly be shown in Australia, Mexico, South Korea, Japan and more than a dozen other countries.
The Videos & Novel
Having been published before 1923, the novel The 39 Steps is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free or in case you prefer a hard copy you may find one here. The Guthrie Theater published a video teaser about the play on youtube:
Notably, apart from the play, 8 short videos about Richard Hannay and his life in London have been shown on youtube where he shows everything from where he gets his shave (Murdock London), to what luggage he uses, to which hats he wears:
If you are now interested in Alfred Hitchcock‘s movie, you can watch a trailer here: