April 26, 2013
Rope is about strangulation. It is both a murder weapon, and an instrument of state justice. The duality of taking life, by an individual versus a state-sanctioned act, gives Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 elegant study in undergraduate skullduggery an universal appeal.
The Old Fire Station’s intimate theatre space frames the audience. They are complicit, silent watchers, participating in an amoral deceit. A darkened Mayfair flat is both the scene of a motiveless murder and a bizarre after-party. The stiffening corpse of Kenneth Kentley, murdered only hours before, is placed in an ornate chest in the drawing room. Refreshments for the party are attractively arranged on it. The father, aunt and Oxford tutor of the deceased are invited to dance to Beethoven, unaware of Kentley’s fate.
Cramming in one last party before returning to Oxford is not unusual. Murdering a fellow undergraduate ‘for the sake of danger and killing’ is. Even if clever, articulate Wyndham Brandon (a sparkling Merlin Bateman) can find justification in Niezche for his ‘feat’, his co-conspirator Charles Granillo (conflicted Ben Bateman) becomes increasingly unnerved by their crime.
Flirtatious party guests Leila Arden (comedienne Jenny Ross), and puppy-like Kenneth Raglan (excellent Josh Entecott) brought humour to the scene: Leila dancing to ragtime, while sensing ‘ a weird and queer time.’ Pointing at the locked box, she imagines it ‘full of rotting bones’. Requesting Brandon open it, he replies: ‘I’m hanged if I do.’ Only when Leila exhorts Entecott to seize the key from Brandon do we glimpse Brandon’s capacity for violence. He twists Entecott’s arm, almost to breaking point.
Colin Burnie’s dignified, humane bibliophile Sir Johnstone Kentley, unknowing father of the deceased adds poignancy to the scene. His sister Mrs Debenham’s (Polly Mountain) monosyllabic responses, without view or purpose, an image of impotent society, which Brandon mocks.
Most powerful of all was Nathan Grassi’s superb portrayal of Kenneth Kentley’s tutor, Rupert Cadell – the only intellect feared by the murderers. A veteran of the First World War, lame and jaded, Cadell titillates the audience by admitting to having carried out murder himself. When the flower of the youth of one nation are set against the flower of the youth of another nation – to fight to the death.
So ‘Rope’ still captivates, stimulates and provokes. Most of all, it is a consummate piece of well crafted drama. Troika’s assured production is an evening’s entertainment to savour.