Of all the emotions and images stirred from the New Theatre’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s Rope, one in particular stands out in the forefront of my memory. Darkness.
In an age where modern set design is marked by visual excesses inherited from the early 20th Century Brechtian and Artaudian traditions, the stark nothingness which greeted audiences as they entered the auditorium of the New Theatre accounts for a stunning and evocative use of minimalism. Director Liz Stevenson (Orphans) made the brave choice of enshrouding the entire stage in a funereal darkness for the first ten minutes of the performance. An expositional scene played out before our eyes. Two Oxford students have killed a fellow undergraduate. The means: strangulation. The motive: thrill, pure and simple. The young man’s remains lied contorted within a chest, a shadowy presence centre-stage. We couldn’t see either of them save for the sinister glower of their cigarettes. They spoke in hushed tones. The very darkness which surrounded both actor and audience was suffocating. For the next two hours, we were voyeurs to a pure and intemperate evil.
Throughout, the interplay of Brandon (Tim Watkins) and Granillo (Max Benenson), as they flaunted their crime under the unknowing eyes of a party of guests which included the victim’s elderly father, embodied the archetypal alpha-male/beta-male crime partnership common in cases of this kind. Unfortunately, with the exception of the play’s final moments, their relationship appeared to deviate little from this archetype. Nevertheless, the individual portrayals by both actors were solid and consistent, despite lacking that nuanced, multi-dimensional quality often required for such psychologically ample pairings.
Regardless, it was a joy to see Patrick Hamilton’s work once again grace a modern stage. He was without a doubt, one of Britain’s foremost forgotten voices of the 20th Century. Primarily a novelist, Rope accounted for one of Hamilton’s few forays into the world of the theatre. The example set by the cast and crew of this production, however, epitomized the man’s severely undervalued talent and phenomenal grasp of the potentials of the theatrical medium. True to form, from start to finish, Rope was a gripping thriller, which balanced dexterously the chilling Sadean philosophies of the sociopathic protagonist Brandon alongside a number of superbly crafted light-hearted moments and a carefully calculated exercise in developing tension.
Jack Hughes deserves special mention in his portrayal of the naïve and enamoured young Kenneth Raglan, who spent most of the evening hopelessly agreeing with his cohorts and attempting to charm the older Leila Arden (Rosanna Stoker). Likewise worthy of mention is Dan Rae-Scott, who demonstrated tremendous range. His characterization of Rupert Cadell was multi-faceted: always a champion raconteur, he was at one instance a vociferous Lord Henry figure glibly espousing the virtues of amorality, and at the next an embittered, crippled war veteran. Rae-Scott recreated with ostensible ease the most troublesome of characters, the pathological actor – a man whose true feelings often lingered beneath layers of acerbic, defensive wit and ironic performance – yet, all the while, evoking a sense of veracity and candour. The play’s climax in which he disregarded his principles for the sake of what he knows in his heart to be right made for one of the most gripping moments in the production.
Delivering at once gripping drama and farcical chamber comedy, Rope, though occasionally hampered by a tendency toward one-dimensionalism, made for a thoroughly commendable production.