The Salisbury Playhouse declared its refurbishment complete last week with a gala "re-opening" (although the building remained in use during the latter phases of its transformation) to coincide with the official first night of Gareth Armstrong's production of a puzzlingly hardy perennial. Since National Lottery rules currently stipulate that its beneficence can be used for capital funding only, Salisbury's artistic director Jonathan Church cannot be accused of getting lottery money for old Rope.
Patrick Hamilton's 1929 play is something of a curio now, despite making periodic reappearances on the stage. As two brilliant Oxford undergraduates do away with a third and throw a Mayfair supper party on the chest which conceals his corpse, the author – and, indeed, the director – succeed only uneasily in blending Nietzschean notions of the amoral superman, discreet homoerotic tension and the period's rather primitive version of camp: the only spontaneous applause during last Friday night's performance came on the final exit of Patricia Kane's gormless, tongue-tied comic turn, Mrs. Debenham, and earlier references to a guest having fagged for one of the murderers at public school are dispensed with a nudge-nudge.
Armstrong renders the homosexual bond of the central duo discreetly visible, though little more: jackets are flung aside and ties loosened in the second act, but the unexpected re-entry of their old housemaster hardly qualifies as coitus interruptus. Nor is there any palpable sense of a similar, latent attachment between the older man, Rupert Cadell, and Brandon, the dominant half of the homicidal pair. Geoffrey Abbott begins his portrayal of Brandon at an awkwardly high level – in a positive transport of sinister rapture at (what else?) having committed the perfect murder – which seriously limits his opportunities for progression in the subsequent two hours. Jasper Britton's Rupert is similarly constrained by the script: a poet by trade and a social gadfly by nature, hirpling around on a gammy leg supported by a cane and compelled to play the sequence of greatest dramatic tension, the uncovering of the dark deed, through an ever greater haze of drunkenness, Britton's Rupert makes up in Byronic finesse what is forbidden to him in subtlety.
When Alfred Hitchcock filmed Rope in 1948 he found it necessary to rewrite the script almost from scratch, bringing the story much closer to that of the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924 which may or may not have been Hamilton's original inspiration (and turning the resulting movie into a formalistic exercise in continuous ten-minute takes). The play itself now seems audibly creaky – the entertainment sags under the minor but awkwardly distributed weight of the moral and philosophical content. It may appear an attractive proposition for a regional house determined gently to push its audience even in more mainstream offerings, but in the end it is incapable of paying out quite as highly in an artistic sense as the Playhouse might like.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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