“How fearfully interested in crime we all are tonight.” That knowing line not only amusingly sums up “Rope,” Patrick Hamilton’s celebrated study of motiveless murder, it offers a punning clue to the essence of any revival of the play: Fear. And fear of discovery welds audiences to Roger Michell’s taut and well-acted production.
Despite his denials, Hamilton’s 1929 play sprang from the Leopold and Loeb case. We immediately learn that devil-may-care Brandon (Blake Ritson) and Granillo (Alex Waldmann) — even more amoral versions of Oscar Wilde’s Algernon and Jack — have strangled an innocent young man.
According to their Nietzschean views, the murder is pure because, unsullied by motive, it allows a clarity and aristocracy of thought, placing them above conventional morality. The coup-de-grace is that, in real-time, they then serve tea on the wooden chest hiding the body to a group of friends, including the boy’s father. Will they pull off the perfect murder?
Hitchcock’s 1948 movie updated the action to the 1940s, which made it contemporary but removed the defining mood of post-WWI youthful hedonism, superbly caught by this production’s design team.
Mark Thompson’s in-the-round set and crisp costumes are fastidiously detailed, right down to the sleek presentation of Philip Arditti’s white-gloved butler. But they also serve as a sharp reminder that although the offstage music is jazz-age Charleston, the defining codes of behavior echo ramrod-backed Edwardian seriousness.
Wholly at ease with period accent, demeanor and manner, Ritson’s smilingly severe Brandon has the requisite lethal chill that convinces audiences he could control Waldmann as his more febrile and nervous friend Granillo.
The subtle exactitude of the performances is echoed in the supporting roles. Raglan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), who “hurdles hundreds of yards and that sort of thing” and is usually overplayed as a brainless athlete, is far more engaging for merely appearing out of his depth. And by back-pedaling the expected braying dimwit, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Leila becomes sweetly touching.
Michell’s direction of Bertie Carvel as Cadell, the poet who unravels the boys’ secret, also restores the moral ambivalence and gay subtext mostly quashed in the movie.
The last London revival went too far in the opposite direction, with an overexplicit nude opening sequence. But Michell keeps the homosexuality subtextual rather than textual. His first-rate cast pays the audience the compliment of allowing them to discover for themselves the nature of the relationships.
Thus a tiny reptilian gleam of pleasure lights up Carvel’s face as he suggests staying to watch the boys pack their suitcases. He is, after all, the man the murderers considered including in their secret. His tiny moment of lasciviousness nails his complicity and the production’s complexity.
Cadell declares his next volume of verse “promises to be not only the best thing I have ever written but the best thing I have ever read.” This is not a character inclined toward understatement, a tone Carvel boldly embraces. But the scale of his performance is held in check by its immense detail.
The withering sarcasm of his arch aestheticism is thrown into stark relief by the held sadness of his speech about melancholia. That emotional control is matched by a physical command over his war-wounded body. His reaction to the climactic opening of the chest is a shiver of revulsion that is all the more expressive for its almost simultaneous repression.
Exquisitely lit by Rick Fisher, often almost solely from flames darting forth from a fireplace, the production never forgets that this is a thriller. From sound designer John Leonard’s scary thunderclaps in an oppressive rainstorm to footsteps on a wood floor outside the room, the atmosphere is vivid enough to make the plot mechanism wholly convincing.
Michell’s knife-edge production makes the best possible case for the return of “Rope.”