fri 09/12/2016

Rope, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Rope, Almeida Theatre

Rope, Almeida Theatre

1920s melodrama made over in style courtesy of Roger Michell

Fun and games? Alex Waldmann and Bertie CarvelJohn Haynes

A banner year for the Almeida Theatre continues with Rope,  director Roger Michell's taut, tense production of the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play better known from the subsequent Hitchcock film, starring a peculiarly cast James Stewart. Performed in the round - a first in my experience at this address - and without a break, the staging gradually tightens its own invisible noose around an audience sufficiently rapt that even a silly visual flourish at the very end can't sour one's enjoyment.

Michell's good sense - more radical than it might sound - is to take absolutely seriously a scenario that could be played as hoary melodrama or borderline camp. And so the lights go up on the darkly lit Mayfair residence in which two Oxford undergraduates have just finished murdering the 20-year-old son of an ageing duffer whom they are about to be entertaining over drinks.

It 's "the perfect crime," or so boasts the Nietzsche-spouting Brandon (Blake Ritson of TV's most  recent Emma, in his breakout theatre performance to date), the cooler and more calculating of the two perpetrators of an entirely motiveless deed. The hitch, of course, is that we live in an imperfect world, as another party guest, the war-wounded poet Rupert Cadell (Bertie Carvel), knows only too well.

And though Rupert may walk with a gait as halting as his speech is quavery, the man has an unerring nose for intrigue. "There's something in the air tonight," he remarks drily as the rain redoubles in intensity in the night sky outside. ( What, you expect such narratives to play themselves out in daylight?) Before one can say hangman's bluff, this "damnably brilliant" aesthete has become the guest that wouldn't leave - at least not until he has damned the nihilism that is staring him, in Brandon's case belligerently, in the face.

John Barrowman was the star of a previous Chichester Festival Theatre take on this same play that accentuated the homoerotic elements of a text that has palpably little time for women: the distaff opportunities, such as they are, fall this time round to Emma Dewhurst as a rather pathetic celebrant who can barely speak two words in a row and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as an unwitting provocatrice who suggests a bygone equivalent of the sorts of mean girls found latterly in the work of Polly Stenham.

But even without the nudity offered up by that previous production, Rope remains a boys' night out, though Carvel - hair moussed like something by way of Eraserhead - cuts so fey and odd a figure that he seems to exist beyond the realm of the sexual: one gets the sense that Rupert has long since sacrificed all considerations of his (damaged) body in order to tend to society's abidingly sick soul. Carvel with this performance moves his exciting career another step forward,  and when he delivers Rupert's great , throat-clearing summation, we could be hearing J B Priestley's much-vaunted Inspector some 15 years or so earlier: this man, too, determined to speak up for the world beyond the primary narcissism of Brandon, a malefactor who exists purely to satisfy the whims of the self.

The showdown between the two juxtaposes rival approaches to life, Brandon's heedless bravado only giving way as the contents of the chest around and on top of which the action happens are forced into view. Ritson is compulsively watchable, all but daring the putative dupes in Brandon's orbit to find him out. But confronted by the lingering "creature of half-light" that is Rupert, his facade crumbles, as may the calm of an audience astonished to see a ticket to the Coliseum pressed into service as a major plot point. Desdemona's handkerchief has nothing on this.

The sole acting misstep comes from Alex Waldmann (an inordinately youthful Laertes opposite Jude Law's Hamlet) as Brandon's sidekick, Granillo, an overemotive accomplice who in his nervousness splashes booze all over the elegant inlay of set designer Mark Thompson's flooring. Mistaking volume for hysteria, Waldmann contributes to an aural imbalance to the night that also includes moments of underprojection from Carvel, whose hyper-stylized delivery is probably difficult to sustain at full voice.

No matter. How can you not respond to a play putting centre-stage someone so confident that he sends his parents a congratulatory telegram on his own birthday? Rope can be cruelly funny or simply cruel but until this production I'd never found it truly disturbing. In retrospect, I would advise sitting near the roaring fire on stage: the onset of London's winter isn't the only thing that casts a chill.

The onset of London's winter isn't the only thing that casts a chill

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