EXTRA, EXTRA: READ ALL ABOUT A NEW VERSION OF HIS GIRL FRIDAY, WRITES SIMON PLANT
NOBODY says “Stop the presses!” any more. But they do in the theatre. In His Girl Friday, hardboiled newspaper editor Walter Bums leans into an upright telephone and barks out the immortal words: “Listen to me, I want you to tear out the whole front page. That’s what I said, the whole front page!”
In the same play, ace reporter Hildy Johnson tells her boss: “The paper’ll have to learn to do without me . . . I’m through … peeking through keyholes, running after fire engines, waking people up in the middle of the night.”
“It is language from another era,” actor Pamela Rabe tells me, “but it is delicious.”
Rabe plays Johnson and Philip Quast is Burns in a new Melbourne Theatre Company production of His Girl Friday. And meeting these expert actors at Little Press, a bar on Flinders St, they look the part — as if they’ve just walked out of a Chicago newsroom in the 1930s.
More importantly, Rabe and Quast sound right They’re relishing the rapid-fire repartee penned by former Chicago journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and finding the pace that powered Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in the celebrated 1940 Hollywood version.
Quast says of Howard Hawks’ famous screwball comedy: “Its fast, all right At the time of the movie, it must have been a bit shocking to audiences. They’d never really experienced that before.”
Rabe agrees: “I think what the writers wanted to replicate was the sound of a newsroom. That cacophony of typewriting and chatter. Today, of course, you’d say it goes at the speed of tweets.”
Sounds like verbal ping pong …
Rabe: “More like tennis, really.”
Quast: “Yeah. There are definite baseline rallies.
“Then we move to the net where there are volleys … and that’s a different rhythm. Boom, boom, boom.
“Someone scores a point. Next serve.”
Rabe: “Stretching the tennis analogy, there are times when there are almost 15 people on stage and then it’s not singles or doubles … its a very crowded court.”
His Girl Friday began life in 1928 as The Front Page. In this George S. Kaufman-directed Broadway hit, a hotshot journalist (named Hildebrand) is determined to quit newspapers and get married. But his scheming editor has other ideas for him.
In 1931, Lewis Milestone turned The Front Page into an Oscar-nominated film. Hawks went further in His Girl Friday by making Hildy a woman … and Walter’s ex. So, when she decides to catch a train east to many her fiance, a handsome schlub with piles of dough, the stakes are suddenly higher.
Rabe explains: “Originally written for two men, the pull of The Front Page was primarily between excitement and adrenalin and peace and quiet. When Howard Hawks switched Hildy’s gender, it added an overt sexual element.”
The latest version of His Girl Friday delivers the best of both wisecracking worlds. Acclaimed US playwright John Guare has adapted the original play with an eye on
Hawks’ movie. And Rabe reports “the elements he has tweaked (for audiences in 2012) are very topical now’.
“That age-old divide between the state and the press, corrupt officials and their hold and sway over media and the white knights in the media who try to blow their cover . . . it’s all there.”
Quast nods: “It allows audiences to make their own connections and think, `Wow, that’s no different from today’.”
But make no mistake: Aidan Fennessy’s production of His Girl Friday for the MTC is firmly grounded in that lost world of ink and linotype, when journalists wore braces and snap-brim hats and filed copy between poker games and slugs of bourbon.
Quast says: “You’ve got a bunch of motley joumos with different agendas all leeching off each other and wanting the same thing, which is THE STORY.”
And what’s coursing under all this mayhem? Love, of course.
As Rabe says: “It’s about opposites attracting.”
And that’s a tale always worth telling.
His Girl Friday, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, opens tonight. Until September 15.
Source: Herald Sun – Weekend | August, 11 2012
Photos: Ben Swinnerton
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