By Émer O’Toole
Alfred Hitchcock described Rope as an “experiment that didn’t work out,” and he was happy to see it kept out of release for nearly 30 years. Gary Hurr’s take on the whodunit in reverse at Webster’s Theatre blends Hitchcock’s 1948 film with Patrick Hamilton’s original play.
Hamilton’s 1929 thriller which he claimed was nothing more than “a De Quinceyish essay in the macabre”, was originally set in the post-war London of the 1920s. It is with this backdrop that Hamilton asks the question of when murder becomes socially and morally acceptable — when is killing murder and when is it war?
The play was allegedly inspired by the famous Leopold and Loeb case in America in 1924 in which two teenagers from prominent Chicago families committed a similar, apparently motiveless murder on a 14-year-old boy. Hurr’s version of the production takes place in the era of Mad Men. Like an Agatha Christie novel in reverse, the murderers (Brandon and Granillo) are revealed from the start with the thrill of the play being to see whether the two undergraduates will get away with it. Audaciously, they then hold a dinner party, serving the food and drink from a chest that contains the corpse, and, in a further twist, include victim’s father — Sir Johnstone Kentley — among their guests.
The guests are barely drawn as characters. Jenny Ryall’s Mrs Debenham could have had more substance as she serves only as amusement for the audience and other characters in the play. However, Jade Kelly excels as the entirely vacuous Leila and Stewart Macdougall is comic relief as Kenneth, a fawning hanger-on. Rupert Cadell (Richard Craig), a quiet intellectual, is the first to raise suspicion, saying “it would be a murder of vanity…. The trouble with that sort of murderer is that he can’t keep quiet about it…. He wants to…do something which gives him away.” In a play that immediately names its killers, the compelling mystery becomes whether Cadell is really on to the murderers or not.
Hurr’s version of the production takes more inspiration from Hitchcock than Hamilton. It is set in America rather than London, although this is occasionally unclear due to the accents of some of the characters. The murder is a completely motiveless crime and Brendon’s sole reason for it is to experience, as he puts it, the “perfect murder.” The culprits, who cite the well-known German thinker, Nietzsche, blame their crime on philosophy, and the need to live dangerously. Differing to the original production, Granillo is a woman. Her distress is initially spun out in a Lady Macbeth-esque way but at the end she is the one comforting Brandon Blake who cheerfully enjoys the ego trip of “perfect murder.”
Despite a few flaws, Rope is gripping from the start and explores the ultimate conceit that if you are willing to take another’s life, then you must value life itself cheaply, including your own.