Most people who who know Patrick Hamilton's 1929 thriller ROPE know it from the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film, which was not one of the director's best. Film buffs all know that Hitchcock tried to make the film look like it was shot in one take. The effect was to make the film static and stilted. It was not helped by the performances. Whether by accident or intention, two gay actors played the gay ocuple modeled on Leopold and Loeb. They're competent, but John Dall is so creepy anyone would be on to him and James Stewart is a disaster as their older friend and onetime mentor, Rupert Cadell. We must see some moral ambiguity in the character but Stewart's ability to play dark would come a few years later with Hitchcock's classic, VERTIGO.
I was surprised when I saw that the Almeida Theatre was reviving ROPE. I associate the Almeida with important new work (in 2009, they gave us Adnrew Bovell's wonderful WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, Jez Butterworth's PARLOUR SONG and Neal LaBute's IN A DARK, DARK HOUSE) or starry revivals of classics. ROPE is hardly a classic and the cast is not starry. Because of excellent direction and one outstanding performance, the revival is an artistic success.
The play is loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb case in which two rich Jewish college boys who were lovers killed a boy for fun. The trial (Clarence Darrow was the defense attorney) was a major media event (murder, homosexuality and anti-Semitism). Hamilton sets the play in a posh flat in London. The young men are Oxford undergraduates at the end of their Winter holiday. There are the slightest hints that they may be more than friends -- this production offered no glimpse of physical intimacy between the two. If you have seen the film, you know the young men kill a classmate, stiff his body in a chest in the sitting room, then invite people, including the victim's father, to drinks and a buffet which is served on the chest. Eventually an older friend, poet Rupert Cadell, crippled and embittered by World War I, discovers the boys' crime and brings them to justice.
What director Roger Michell realized was that the central role in ROPE is Rupert Cadell, not the young murderers. From the moment Bertie Carvel, playing Rupert, enters the scene, he is the focus. Carvel plays Rupert as a foppish queen who sees himself as both center of attention and an astute, if superior observer. Knowledge is power for him, but at first knowledge is not connected to any ethical judgment. We see him move from curiosity to moral outrage, from superciliousness to courage. Carvel is a brilliant young actor who has had a great deal of success in London theater (an Olivier for his Leo Franks in PARADE at the Donmar, high praise for his performance in THE PRIDE at the Royal Court). He's a truly daring actor who loses himself in every role he plays. You can't take your eyes off of him in this production.
Roger Michell made other wise directoral choices. ROPE was played straight through without an interval which gave it a sense of taking place in real time and underscored its intensity. It was played in the round which worked very well at the Almeida -- it looked like the theater's natural ocnfiguration. I thought the actors playing the boys were too old and I felt no connection of any kind between them, I admired the detailed, highly entertaining performances of the supporting cast.
ROPE by Patrick Hamilton, directed by Roger Michell. Almeida Theatre. January 2, 2010