Patrick Hamilton's Rope may be a classic script, but it's also a rather bizarre one. Two upper-class students commit a brutal murder: not for gain, or any other kind of motive, but simply to demonstrate their own superiority. They've hidden the body in a packing chest, and invited some friends round for tea. They're using the chest to lay out the buffet. Is this really a good idea?
Pretty Villain's production tells the story well enough, but lacks a little in the all-important atmosphere. We start by meeting our perpetrators, Brandon and Granno, as they prepare for their party; Brandon is the ringleader, haughty and detached, while Granno is nervy and restless. The dynamic between the two killers drives much of the early drama, as the thrill-seeking Brandon returns again and again to the subject that might hang them.
The opening feels a bit rushed, though, more archly humorous than threatening and tense. It picked up for me from the midpoint onwards, as the victim's father – who's been invited to the soiree – allows concern for his missing son to poke through his bumbling demeanour. The party wraps up, but poet Rupert refuses to leave. Perhaps he's guessed the truth.
Rope is a psychological thriller – life or death hangs on whether anyone opens that crate – but it's an odd type of thriller, where the agonies of suspense fall on the murderers rather than their prey. It's a hard balance to get right, and I'm not sure this production fully achieves it. I never quite tuned into the back-story, never entirely believed there was a body in the box. There's interest in the question of whether and how the killers will be trapped – but the edge I was looking for isn't there.
To understand Hamilton's script, I think, you have to remember the time when it was written: not long after the First World War, with its attendant cheapening of life and despair at the very concept of humanity. Bear that in mind, and the characters' musings about whether murder is genuinely immoral start to make a dark kind of sense. The trouble is that, from a modern perspective, this viewpoint is all but incomprehensible – and big chunks of the dialogue, with their mannered obsession about how weird it is to put food on a packing chest, belong in a different era too.
It's not this production's fault that the script now shows its age, but it could maybe do more to set the context – to connect us with the characters' unfamiliar lives, and highlight how all of them (especially Rupert) have been forged in the furnace of war. Still, this is a decent production of a famous play… and a glimpse into a disturbing, self-centred, coldly vicious philosophy.