Stage Door Review

Rope

Friday, August 9, 2019

✭✭

by Patrick Hamilton, directed by Jani Lauzon

Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

May 24-October 12, 2019

Brandon: “And for one who hasn’t a conscience, I can understand murder being an entirely engrossing adventure”

The Shaw Festival’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 thriller Rope proves to be unexpectedly topical. Unlike ordinary thrillers, Hamilton’s play brings up larger topics of when killing is and is not justified and what does and does not make life worth living. With effective performances from the entire cast, Rope presents us wth questions that are not fully resolved when the curtain falls.

Rope is likely most familiar to audiences from the well-known 1948 film based on it by Alfred Hitchcock. The screenplay by Arthur Laurents makes several important changes to Hamilton’s play. It changes the location from 1920s London to 1940s New York, it downplays the homosexuality of the two killers and alters the personalities of most of the dinner guests. 

What remains the same, however, is Hamilton’s basic plot. Hamilton was inspired the notorious 1924 case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy male teenaged lovers who killed a 14-year-boy simply to prove their superiority to conventional morality. In Hamilton’s play two wealthy Oxford undergraduates, Wyndham Brandon (Kelly Wong) and his lover Charles Granillo (Travis Seetoo), kill a popular classmate simply for the thrill of it and hide his body in a chest in their parlour. To heighten their excitement they invite guests, including the boy’s father and aunt, over for a buffet dinner served atop the very chest where the body lies. Since the murder has no conventional motive, the pair are convinced that they have committed the perfect murder and will never be found out. Indeed, what intrigues us most is what could possibly cause the murder to be discovered.

Despite their smugness, Brandon and Granillo have left one physical clue. Their victim was to attend a show at the Coliseum Music Hall that afternoon and the ticket has fallen out of his pocket. Who has the tickets and who sees it becomes key in discovering the flaw in the killers’ story. Brandon and Granillo’s personalities provide the main psychological clues. While Brandon remains completely cool, Granillo starts to break under pressure and deliberately gets himself drunk. Yet, Brandon’s very coolness is also suspicious. As one of their guests, their former teacher Rupert Cadell (Michael Therriault), points out, their is no such thing as a “motiveless murder: “It would have a quite clear motive. Vanity. It would be a murder of vanity. And because of that, the criminal would be quite unable to keep from talking about it, or showing it off -- in some fantastic way or another”. 

Hamilton’s examination of when killing is or is not justified is fascinating in itself and foreshadows present-day discussions what does or does not constitute a terrorist act. Cadell, a World War I veteran, says that he is a murderer. He killed people he did not even know because the United Kingdom was in a state of declared war. Were he to kill someone he didn’t know in England now, he’d be arrested for murder. 

Dramatically, Hamilton plays with our sympathies in a way that calls our judgement of right and wrong into doubt. As would become a standard ploy in film noir, Hamilton has us share the secret of Brandon and Granillo’s crime right from the start. We are thus guilty of knowing a secret that their invited guests do not know. Because of that, we, almost against our will, become invested in protecting the secret so that we jump when anyone comes close to guessing what the two killers have done or when one of the killer shows signs of guilt. We are thus morally compromised because once the secret we share is known it will no longer be our special possession.

Director Jani Lauzon draws fine performances from the entire cast. Kelly Wong uses his resonant voice to great effect in bringing out the smooth self-satisfaction of Brandon. Wong makes Brandon appear to be so much in control that the few occasions when he slips into anxiety are frightening. 

Travis Seetoo plays Granillo as a foil to Wong’s Brandon. Granillo is all nerves and easily terrified right from the start. To calm himself Granillo sets about getting drunk and Seetoo charts Granillo’s decline in minute detail. With his Granillo we worry that he will get so drunk he will blurt out something foolish without realizing it.

Lauzon uses only a very few touches to underscore that Brandon and Granillo are a gay couple. Once Granillo rests his head on Brandon’s shoulder. Once Brandon kisses Granillo’s forehead. And, once, when Brandon claims that Cadell has found them out, Brandon puts his arm around Granillo as if homosexuality were their crime.

Of course, at the time of the play homosexuality was a crime and did not cease to be one in Great Britain until 1967. Hamilton never suggests that Brandon and Granillo commit their motiveless murder because they are gay. Rather, his implication is that the two, if found out, would already be considered criminals and asks us to consider which crime is worse – homosexuality or murder. 

It falls to Michael Therriault to play Rupert Cadell, the piece’s most challenging character. Laurents’s screenplay for Hitchcock makes clear that it is Cadell who first taught Nietzsche’s concept of the superman to the two killers and that he feels in some way complicit in what his students have done. In the play Cadell is more complex. Cadell’s constant mocking of Raglan and Leila’s flirtation suggests a disgust for heterosexual wooing. His willingness to shock the group by proclaiming his disregard for the Ten Commandments would seem to mark him as a libertine of the Wildean stripe. Indeed, Brandon and Granillo say that they had thought Cadell would have enjoyed their “adventure” of murdering someone but they felt he didn’t have the nerve. Yet, Cadell ultimately views himself as a representative of society at large.

It is difficult to play so contradictory a character and Therriault does not quite bring it off. First of all, he seems too young to have known Brandon since Brandon was an infant. Second, and more important, Therriault does not fully convey until the end that Cadell is coldly enjoying analyzing and toying with the couple. If there were a former relationship between Cadell and Brandon as is hinted at in the film, we might understand think that Cadell is gathering evidence for revenge. Since the play does not make such a link, Therriault needs to give us an idea why Cadell would wish to appear so controversial in public while being so conventional in private.

In other roles Kyle Golemba and Alexis Gordon are excellent as Raglan and Leila, two rather dimwitted bright young things who find their attraction to each other more interesting than anything else at the party. Gordon, who always lends such intelligence to her characters in other plays and musicals, also suggests that Leila is not really as dim as she acts and is carefully seducing Raglan without his noticing it.

Peter Millard, who would have made a fine Cadell, is certainly effective as the earnest Sir Johnstone Kentley. Patty Jamieson provides much humour as the oddly taciturn Mrs Debenham, who can’t seem to give a direct answer to any question. Élodie Gillett deftly plays the maid Sabot, who seems to disapprove both of Brandon and Granillo’s behaviour and of Cadell’s impertinent questioning.

At first glance Joanna Yu’s design for Brandon and Granillo’s flat looks rather dingy with its undecorated beige walls. Once the action begins, however, Louise Guinand’s clever lighting reveals that these walls are translucent and allow us to see the what characters are doing behind them. The design thus serves as a metaphor for the play where secrets lie behind surfaces, the one impenetrable surface happening to be the sides of the chest placed centre stage. 

One peculiarity of the production is Lauzon’s permitting John Gzowski to provide music to underscore speeches in the play. Gzowski’s unsettling music is fine when no one is speaking. When it plays during speech it distracts us from the words.

Hamilton’s Rope like his 1938 play Gaslight continue to be produced because they both present us with seemingly impossible situations. In Rope, we wonder how anyone will discover that two young men have committed a crime without a motive. In Gaslight we wonder how a woman will ever find someone to believe her when her husband tells everyone she is insane. In Rope, Hamilton expands upon his theme to give it implications beyond the thriller genre. Gaslight, of course, has given its name to an insidious modern form of psychological abuse. For an good old-fashioned thriller that is still eerily effective today, Rope is a play you will want to see. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Michael Therriault as Cadell, Travis Seetoo as Granillo and Kelly Wong as Brandon, © 2019 Emily Cooper; Travis Seetoo as Granillo and Kelly Wong as Brandon, © 2019 David Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.