Sometimes the best refuge from real trauma is simulated terror. The English playwright David Rudkin remembers cowering under his bunk in an air-raid shelter as a child. It was the early 1940s, and German bombs were raining on his hometown, Birmingham. What dreams may come to a child who fears for his life? Menacing images from Alfred Hitchcock thrillers like “Rebecca,” “Suspicion” and “Foreign Correspondent,” naturally.
“As I lay on the floor in fright,” Mr. Rudkin, 77, said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Worcestershire, “I would go through those films in my head, those scenes. I was retreating from real existential danger into this separate, imaginary world of anxiety.”
It was a world to which he had only been exposed piecemeal, he explained, since his mother was in the practice of sneaking off with him to movie houses far from their home, where his father, an evangelical pastor, had strictly forbidden exposure to the “Babylon” of motion pictures. Even as Hitchcock’s films gave his boyhood self the paradoxical thrill of being scared, the anxiety they provoked made him feel “as though I was being punished in the cinema for being there,” Mr. Rudkin recalled. “I think Hitchcock would very much have appreciated that feeling.”
This acute sense of guilty pleasure, imprinted in childhood and channeled into art, provides the inspiration for Mr. Rudkin’s “The Lovesong of Alfred J. Hitchcock,” which runs May 4 to 25 as part of the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters. Less a straightforward biographical drama than a ruminative psychological study, “Lovesong” sifts through Hitchcock’s youth and early career for clues to the visual motifs and thematic obsessions — inaccessible blondes with names that start with the letter “M,” for instance — that would recur in his work.
Though it inevitably plows some of the same fertile ground as recent movies about the filmmaker’s private and professional life — “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins, and HBO’s “The Girl,” starring Toby Jones — “Lovesong” originated in 1993 as a radio play featuring Richard Griffiths (of “History Boys” and “Harry Potter” fame). Mr. Rudkin was persuaded to revisit the work when Jack McNamara, a young director who’d taken over the Nottingham-based touring company New Perspectives, went looking for a popular subject for a show.