Rope (Almeida 23/12/09) 28 December 2009

I did what you probably shouldn't do when seeing a play that has a film version - I watched the film first. Well, sort of. I started watching it then fell asleep. That's not to say that the film was boring but it didn't prove to be as exciting as I expected it to be. The film version of Rope of course is directed by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted for the screen from Patrick Hamilton's play by actor Hume Cronyn which in turn is inspired by true events. Luckily, by falling asleep I didn't see the ending which is important in this story as the audience already knows who, what, when, where and basically why, from the first scene. What is not known is - will they get away with it?

For the first time in Almeida history, the seating arrangement is in the round. I was seated in the first row of the circle, an excellent seat. What they have done is pull the stage forward into what is usually the first few rows. The back wall of the previous stage area is now lined with two rows of seats on tow levels, matching the existing circle and stalls. It's all seamless. If you hadn't been to the Almeida before you would never realy guess that it was a new configuration.

As the play opens, tow of the main characters Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo have just strangled a university friend to death with a rope and are stuffing him in chest in the front sitting room. The first ten or so minutes of Rope are played in almost complete darkness as the two characters discuss what has just happened and what will happen. What will happen is a party. They have invited friends of the deceased as well as his father who they assume will come with the aunt. There is a perverse thrill about having a party in such close vicinity of the dead body, and Wyndham (Blake Ritson - Arcadia for the National Theatre and the film RocknRolla) is relishing it. His partner in crime Granillo (Alex Waldmann - Laertes in Jude Law's West End Hamlet) is much less confident, in fact he is in full on panic mode.

When they finally feel safe to turn on lights the play proper begins. Instead of serving the food and drinks in the dining room they have opted to take their plan further by serving from the chest with the body in the front room. Their servant (this is late 20's, early 30's upper class London) Sabot arrives first to set the table. It's really a thankless part, with the character's only purpose being to help arouse suspicion and then exit. As played by Philip Arditti (England People Very Nice - National Theatre, House of Saddam for HBO) I think he is supposed to be North African or French. This is the one severly underwritten part in the play.

After Sabot, the others arrive one by one: Another university friend Kenneth Raglan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes - almost unrecogniseable from his stint as the bully on The Inbetweeners), another friend, socialite Leila Arden (a very well played and very funny Phoebe Waller-Bridge - 2nd May 1997 at the Bush, co-Artistic Director of DryWrite), followed by the father of the corpse Sir Johnstone Kentley (Michael Elwyn - numerous productions at the Royal Exchange Manchester and Open Air Theatre Regents Park as well as Tv's The Tudors) along with his sister Mrs Debenham who struggles to speak more than three words at a time (Emma Dewhurst - Medea, Jane Eyre both West End, The Invention of Love and Making History - both National Theatre). The general interactions between these guests are entertaining to listen to and watch. As directed by Roger Michell (Female of the Species - West End; Landscape with Weapon, Blue/Orange - both National Theatre; films include - The Mother, Enduring Love and Notting Hill) the characters move effortlessly around the circular set allowing each to emerge and establish themselves without isolating them from the central event.

The balance changes with the entrance of Rupert Cadell, another friend - an ex-serviceman from the first world war, who walks with a cane as a result of a war wound. As played by Bertie Carvel (The Pride at the Royal Court; Parade at the Donmar; The Man of Mode, Galileo and Coram Boy - all National Theatre) Rupert is a a visual and aural curiosity. HIs speech is clipped, with odd exagerations on various phrases and words, he walks with a limp and has a very camp, fey air about him. However, it's the hair - the hair is a marvel all it's own. Where did that come from? All I can say it's an early 1929 quif and it works. All in all, Bertie Carvell gives one of the finest performances of the year. He has an uncanny ability to make Rupert extremely funny as well as endearing although he can be bitchy and arrogant. No matter how funny he is, Carvell never allows the character to turn into farce, knowing when to pull back and allow the other characters to have their turn, he never overpowers the scenes. What is also very admirable is that no matter what volume he pitches the performance, Carvel always follows through with the many ticks of the character.

This can also be said of the entire production. There are many times where it becomes extremely funny, to the point where I had to wonder if it was turning out to be a great comedy and the thriler aspects were going to be secondary. This never happened, the production knew when to reign it in - the comedy came naturally from the characterisations so it was only funny when it should be. And the ending. I really loved the lead up to the final events. There are some really great and touching speeches, and some interesting theories to chew on without ever becoming pretentious and overbearing.

Compare and contrast time. This really has no bearing on my enjoyment of the production but I think these are interesting points to bring up. I'll start with the Hitchcock film as that was my point of entry.
Hitchcocks Rope takes place in the late 1950s in Manhattan. The number of characters are about the same but many have different relationships with each other and the servant has a much bigger part and is female. Keeping this in mind, imagine my surprise when in the opening moments of the play I am hearing RP.

Later that evening, when I returned home, I decided to look further into the Rope story. Lets start with the real story. The real killing took place in Chicago in 1924 by Leopold and Loeb. I 'm not sure why the play then took place in the UK other than the playwright may have felt more comfortable with all things English and was writing for that audience (his other famous plays include Gaslight - recently revived at the Old Vic, and Hangover Square). The other interesting fact is the sexuality of the two main characters.

Leopold and Loeb were gay. It was never called that back in the day of their trial, but they admitted to sexual relations. I find this information of interest because it explains a few things about the film. Of course, the 'love that dare not speak its name' was a no go area in the late 1950s, especially if James Stewart is one of your stars, but if you watch the film closely one does wonder why the two killers are standing so close together. It sounds odd but have a watch and you'll see what I mean. I think Hitchcock was inferring intimacy without making it an issue. Again, this was an issue that you wouldn't find in a 1929 play, so the closest you get in the play text (much like the film) is that the two characters are travelling out of town together for the winter. Flash forward to the West End revival of Rope in the 90's which famously opened with full frontal male nudity, intimating that the killing was part of a honey trapvmaking no bones about the characters sexuality.

In this current revival, it sticks to the text as is. I've never read it so I can't be sure how camp Rupert was written, but as with the film, the sexuality is inferred but off handed comments and physicality but never overtly stated. Ultimately, does their sexuality make a difference to the play? No, not one bit. It's just an interesting sidenote to an interesting and engrossing play which you should see (if you can).