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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ROPE
at the Almeida

MURDER TO PROVE A POINT
By JOHN NATHAN

  Blake Ritson and Alex Waldmann/ Ph: John Haynes

By strange coincidence Roger Michell’s production is the second in London with a connection to the famous American defence attorney Clarence Darrow.
 
The first was Trevor Nunn’s rare London revival of Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence’s courtroom drama Inherit the Wind, which was based on the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In Nunn’s production, Kevin Spacey played Drummond, the fictional version of Darrow who defended a teacher for the crime of teaching Tennessee children evolution.
 
Patrick Hamilton’s Rope doesn’t feature a version of Darrow, but it might have if the play followed the fate of Hamilton’s two upper-class anti-heroes beyond the play’s final scene and into the courtroom for their murder trial.
 
For as with Inherit the Wind, Rope – best known as the Hitchcock movie – is inspired by real events. A year before the Scopes trial, Darrow defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who murdered a 14-year-old boy as part of a game to prove their intellectual superiority.
 
“We have committed passionless and motiveless murder,” declares the icy Brandon (Blake Ritson) to his accomplice Granilo (Alex Waldmann), Hamilton’s English versions of the Americans Loeb and Leopold.
 
Hamilton makes up the rest. In his play, Brandon is not satisfied with killing; he wants the murder to be followed by an evening of “piquancy” to lend the deed a certain style. So with the victim stuffed into an ornate chest that sits centre stage, the duo host a dinner party. The guests include some upper class twits, the father of the murdered boy, and Brandon and Granilo’s fiercely intelligent friend Rupert Cadell (played by the always-excellent Bertie Carvel), whom they consider almost worthy of letting in on their secret.
 
Michell’s uninterrupted 90-minute production is performed on Mark Thompson’s clever octagonal design – the first Almeida production to be staged in the round. Above the action is a domed skylight on which London rain beats down like a drum. Atmosphere is not lacking, but there is less tension than you might expect from a play whose main prop is an ornate chest with a body in it.
 
As well as that dome, hanging over this play is Hamilton’s all-too-obvious manipulation of dialogue. Plot devices stick out like sore thumbs. When Rupert bluntly asks his hosts if they have any rope, what he means is string – to bind a parcel. Who asks for rope? And the whiff of artifice becomes ever more pungent when the party banter turns to the possibility of a body hidden in the chest.
 
It is moments such as these that send Waldmann’s gibbering Granillo into yet more guilt-induced hysterics.
 
And the fun here is in watching Brandon attempt to stop his partner in crime (and life?) from losing his cool, while Carvel’s tetchy Rupert (who sports a hairdo that only a genius could get away with – brushed back into the shape of an upside-down cone) becomes increasingly suspicious.
 
Carvel gets Hamilton’s best Wildean lines. When, in a clumsy attempt at polite conversation, the increasingly inebriated Granillo asks Carvel  how his latest book is coming on, he replies, “It promises not only to be the best thing I’ve written, but the best thing I’ve read.” And when the chitchat turns to birthdays, Rupert reveals how he marks his every year – by sending his parents a telegram of congratulations.
 
It’s all the more surprising then when this supercilious party pooper refuses his hosts’ invitation to admire the Nietzschean qualities of their crime, revealing instead a stiff moral fibre. It’s just the same that Rope isn’t as taut.

 

 


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