Jeremy Malies in East Sussex
12 May 2018
There was much psychosis on view in a radical version of Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play Rope by the company Pretty Villain. Brighton is a fitting venue insofar as Hamilton was born on the outskirts of the city, lived there as a child and used it as the setting for a novel.
The play is best known for Hitchcock’s film adaptation. It’s loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb case of 1925 but Hamilton moves the setting from Chicago to London. Two privileged Oxford undergraduates follow the Nietzschean maxim to live dangerously and commit what they think will be the perfect murder. They strangle a fellow student, put his body in a chest and throw a party during which guests including the victim’s father are served food from the chest.
Rope prefigures Columbo being largely a ‘How did he solve it?’ rather than a whodunnit. Director Roger Kay reduces a play with a running time of 135 minutes to an hour. An unnecessary character who would have cluttered the small stage is cut and numerous literary references that serve little purpose are removed. However, a few lines that contain useful exposition might have been retained.
If I’ve understood the intentions, the production eliminates trappings to focus on the pure psychology of a bravado killing. The approach succeeds and the author’s one absolute dictum, that the action should be continuous, is observed rigorously. But I should have preferred more use of blackout early on; it’s clearly indicated in the stage directions and would surely have contributed to tension.
Playing the more active and strong-willed of the murderers, Graeme Dalling conveys the self-approval and elation vital to a character who is striving for “the perfection of criminality.” He is convincing with the strained bonhomie as matters go awry. As his malleable sidekick, John Black suggests he is living on nerves that have always been fragile and are soon shot to pieces. All the performers contribute to the macabre atmosphere though as a stereotypical flapper, Kitty Newbury could have done more to show that even her shallow character has a sense of unease.
The biggest acting challenge is for Neil James cast as Cadell who solves the crime. Forget Jimmy Stewart playing the outwardly bumbling but gimlet-eyed college lecturer in the film. As written, the character is an aesthete poet but also a man of action who has shown bravery and been wounded during WWI. He is required to face down the murderers knowing that while there are police officers on hand he is still in harm’s way.
James not only negotiates speeches whose language is unremittingly dense but is compelling when he reverses the whole dynamic as he confronts the killers. Crucially, he must ensure that this scene does not lurch towards the very kind of melodramatic touring rep theatre that Patrick Hamilton is looking to subvert. A timely revival of a neglected play.