March 17 – April 15, 2012
Listen to my live review of Rope on CBC’s Eyeopener on Monday at 8:20
Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play Rope is a show that many people know something about. Perhaps they’re familiar with the infamous Leopold and Loeb case that inspired the story or maybe they’ve seen the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock movie starring Jimmy Stewart that was based on the play. However, even if you are somehow acquainted with Rope, chances are fairly good that you haven’t seen the actual stage play. Myself included. So I was very curious to see how the story would play out theatrically and if it still had that thriller punch after so many years.
Now if at this point in the review you are scratching your head wondering who the heck Leopold and Loeb were, I’ll save you the Google search. Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb were wealthy University of Chicago students who wanted to prove their superior intelligence by committing the perfect crime. The pair kidnapped and killed 14-year-old Robert Franks (son of a Chicago millionaire and also Loeb’s distant cousin), destroyed all of the evidence and then demanded a ransom from his family. Ultimately Franks’ body was discovered and the pair was charged. Defended by renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow, Leopold and Loeb avoided the death penalty and were instead sentenced to life in prison.
Ok, is everyone caught up? Right then, back to the play, which is not exactly a retelling of the famous story. Hamilton sets his play in London, the murderous boys are Oxford students named Brandon (Stafford Perry) and Granillo (Scott Shpeley), the boy they strangle with a rope is the 20-year-old son of a distinguished gentleman and it is a fellow student, Rupert (David Leyshon), who ends up solving the murder and turning the pair in.
But perhaps most notable about Hamilton’s story is the way in which Brandon and Granillo hide the body. To more fully illustrate the pair’s soulless disrespect for life and their excitement about the danger in what they have done, Brandon and Granillo place the boy’s body in their living room chest and invite his father and other guests over for dinner to dine from atop the secret casket.
If this sounds dark and gruesome, well the premise of the story certainly is. The play on the other hand is a combination comedy / thriller that frankly doesn’t do a great job on either front.
The murder itself starts the play off and it takes place in Brandon’s and Granillo’s a darkened, moody, atmospheric living room replete with Persian rugs and rich brocade curtains. Director Blair Williams used the shadowy stage well to evoke a sense of secrecy and tension, but almost immediately after the murder has taken place, the lights come on and the jokes start coming. This is not black humour mind you, the kind where morbid or grotesque situations are used as comedy to evoke a certain cynical style. Rope instead finds the comedy in all the lowbrow obvious places. We are asked to laugh as we watch Granillo spiral into slapstick-like drunken behavior. We are asked to laugh when the clichéd French servant Sabot steals sandwiches off the plates he’s clearing from dinner. We are asked to laugh as Rupert makes sarcastic remarks about everyone at the party. We are asked to laugh at a semi comatose old woman again and again as she stares off into space not really following the party conversation or caring to. The list could go on, but the point to be made is that not only do these comedic elements add nothing of interest to the plot; they whitewash the thriller part of the story, which in case anyone has forgotten is a heinous and senseless murder. Allowing for the possibility of over sensitivity due to the recent barrage of these types of crimes in the news lately (Tori Stafford, the rogue US Staff Sargent shooting rampage in Afghanistan and most recently the killing spree in France) I was more than a little put off by the sitcom treatment of the subject. Why was I being asked to laugh at and with a pair of cold-blooded murderers in this fashion? Distastefulness aside, as a plot device, the comedy certainly excused the audience from having to really dislike the murderers or think too hard about what they had done. In part I blame Hamilton for injecting such frivolous dialogue into the narrative and the rest of the blame goes to Williams for allowing his otherwise capable cast to play the lines so blatantly for the chuckles.
Running concurrently with Rope’s comedy treatment is the supposed thriller element. There is a dead body after all and while the audience knows exactly what happened and who did it, the suspense is supposed to come from the mystery of whether the others will find out. Sure there are lots of “what’s in the chest” talk by party guests and even weak attempts to get Brandon to open the lid and expose what’s inside. But fairly early on, we realize that it’s Rupert who is on to them, or at least suspicious, and the safe bet would be that he figures it out. How this happens has the potential for intrigue, but the momentum that leads Rupert to the climax of the play is tedious, thanks to the long and repetitive laugh a minute scenes and the overly obvious “aha” clue moments.
Mercifully, we do get a bit of true dramatic tension and that thriller kick in the last scene when Rupert confronts the pair with his suspicions. Leyshon as Rupert does a fine job dropping the arrogant smarmy act, finally showing depth of character as he accuses and reels in horror at the deed. Perry as Brandon also brings his acting chops to the table dancing around Rupert’s questions and then coolly accepting blame without remorse. But by this point it’s too late for drama or decent acting. Drowned in an inappropriate and uninteresting light comedy stew that never allows for more than shallow character or story development, Rope’s climax limps off the stage leaving us ambivalent to all that has come before it. To my mind, being made to feel apathetic about such an evil subject is the real crime of the play.
For the guys – I suppose you might find interest in the notion of doing something so dangerous just for the thrill of it. But with so much of the story played out as a comedy, the thrill is gone as the famous blues song goes. SKIP IT
For the girls – There is not one character to like or care about here. Arrogant, vapid or clueless, that’s all that’s presented. And without any irony to make it interesting, you’ll find the casual treatment of the crime unsatisfying at best and at worst offensive. SKIP IT
For the occasional theater goer – The laughs are easy, the crime and characters are not that disturbing, the acting is decent and at no point are you asked to work too hard to be entertained. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – This is a lesson on how to take a shockingly interesting story idea and beat it into pedestrian pulp. SKIP IT