My classmates and I walked through the red carpeted floors of the Criterion Theatre in the West End of London, on our way to see Patrick Barlow’s adapted parody of the film adaption (Hitchcock) and novel (Buchan), The 39 Steps. As we made our way and took our seats in the first couple of rows, we sat ready, awaiting the performance with quiet chatter and delighted anticipation. As the play went on, there were numerous laughs from the audience--and even the actors at times—as was to be expected, but throughout the humor, it was evident how stage presence is key in a “successful” performance.
In fact, when one thinks of the stage, theater, and success, how can one avoid the celebrated, William Shakespeare? As I was contemplating how to analyze my experience at the Criterion Theatre, I began to consider the element of “stage presence” for The 39 Steps, juxtaposing one of England’s most prominent playwrights and actors of all times. From our trip to the Globe, (as well as from Shakespeare classes in the past), I have heard the phrase, “theater is not meant to be seen, but heard.” This is an interesting phenomenon especially considering the fact that most people these days go to “see a play” rather than to “hear a play.” While a play is a spectacle—something to be seen, to be witnessed or observed—it is also something to be experienced, felt, or absorbed. Applying these ideas to my experience of the The 39 Steps, it becomes apparent that stage presence is a central role in the success of a play.
Stage presence is, presumably, something every actor strives for. In the Criterion Theatre’s adaption of The 39 Steps, there was a four-person cast, creating a story in a small, controlled area—the stage. These four actors played multiple characters and even created their own props and set pieces—sometimes with their own bodies through actions or gestures.
While all the actors were somehow able to create a persona (or personas for their multiple characters) and a presence(s), perhaps most convincing and intriguing was actor Ben Righton’s (Richard Hannay) stage presence. From the moment the play begins, stage presence is established. We first meet Richard Hannay in his quiet apartment with furniture covered with sheets, and he, through monologue, sits in a large armchair, opening up his story to us all as the audience. We take in his presence—we begin to understand his way of being. We hear his voice, see his facial expressions, and consider his clothing and temperament. We observe and hear; as the play goes on, we are experiencing together. These actors utilized their entire space, becoming one with the stage, one with each other as actors, and one with us, the audience--they acknowledge that we are a part of their experience. While their stage was not as dimensional as Shakespeare’s at the Globe, these four actors were able to create their presence by inviting us to be on this journey with them. Even when they had to ad-lib (i.e. stumbling over the hats while transitioning characters, speaking to the audience to sit and listen, etc.), they maintained a sense of humor and presence! In fact their ad-lib additions strengthened their overall presence because they engaged us as part of their atmosphere, as being present with them.
Overall, this adaption of The 39 Steps was one of my favorite theatrical events I have ever been to. It may not have been a Shakespearian play, but it certainly was a “comedy” and was creatively written and beautifully executed. Due to the powerfully deluding stage presence these actors created, we as the audience were able to feel, see, and hear their presence and become a part of this masterpiece they were creating.
Cinetrek 3 at the Criterion Theatre