Friday, June 10, 2011


Chester Productions and the Tamarama Rock Surfers present ROPE by Patrick Hamilton at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre.

ROPE by Patrick Hamilton is a 1929 thriller, made memorably into a film by Alfred Hitchcock (1948). Although, Hamilton himself claimed it was nothing more than “a De Quincey-ish essay in the macabre” and it may have lost some of its flesh-creeping power, it can be ,if, done with meticulous style and respect a very good and maybe, thought provoking time in the theatre. In 2009, the Almeida Theatre in London revived it stylishly and it was uniformly received with enthusiastic response by the critics and audience (it was that company’s Christmas gift to the season – an antidote to the usual fare, available). It is a well written play, of its genre, with poetic flights of fancy, witty observations of the vapidness of the society it existed in, a moral debate of some import to the times (ours, too), written, in hindsight, perceptibly, exactly between the two World Wars of the last century, with terrific roles for actors to play with.

ROPE is a fictional adaptation of one of the great crimes of the Roaring 'Twenties decade – a tabloid and court-room sensation of the period, nationally and internationally. In Chicago in 1924, Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb killed fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. Highly intelligent sons of wealthy families they were afforded a defence lawyer of great stature, Clarence Darrow, who, while admitting their guilt pleaded eloquently against capital punishment, which the general public, whipped up by the press of the time, was baying for. One of the sensations and incongruous twists of the crime was the principal motivation of the perpetrators which was the living out of a perverse reading of Nietzsche’s theory of the UBERMENSCH (THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA). UBERMENSCH – The Superman – who Leopold and Loeb envisioned to be aloof to the petty concerns of mankind. That he lives in a realm that transcends the body politic, above humanity. That he feels no obligation to be limited by the social, religious, and moral conventions of his contemporaries. Their paltry laws and ethics pale to insignificance before him. Hence, a thrill kill to confront the society, to test their worthiness of this ideal (the two killers were 18 and 19 years old). Some of the world’s elite, no less so than in Europe, in Weimar Germany, for instance, thought about the responsibility of such ubermensch powers. Brecht’s BAAL may have glinted with this attractive 'preciousness', as well.

Patrick Hamilton wrote another famous play of the period, GASLIGHT, (1944 film with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, directed by George Cukor), was also esteemed by the likes of Graham Greene and J.B. Priestly as a novelist. HANGOVER SQUARE, THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE and a remarkable, but bleak trilogy: THE WEST PIER (1952); MR STIMPSON AND MR.GORSE (1953); and UNKNOWN ASSAILANT (1955) also known and published under the title THE GORSE TRILOGY (1992) are lesser known today, probably because of the dark subject matter. Graham Greene regarded THE WEST PIER, the best book about Brighton that he knew of, until his own BRIGHTON ROCK, perhaps?

This palaver of mine is to underline the fact that I don’t believe ROPE is necessarily just a trivial exercise of gothic melodrama or period kitsch. Writing for the stage in the United Kingdom under the demands of the censorship powers of the Lord Chamberlain, Mr Hamilton adapted the original American source material to English circumstances and introduced a World War 1 veteran, the character of Rupert Cadell, to discuss and debate the moral values of the killing in war, paralleling the ethics of the two young thrill seekers alongside that of nations. Couched in a popular genre of the murder thriller/ melodrama of the period it registered ideas without difficulty from the conventions of the status quo and the general public, as the sabre rattling between the nations of Europe were beginning again.

The bare bones of the play: two young men living in a luxurious first floor apartment in Mayfair, murder a friend of theirs in their lounge room, hide the body in a chest and receive invited guests, including relatives of the dead boy, for early evening drinks, to test their ubermensch qualities.

The Chester Productions and Tamarama Rock Surfers production, directed by Iain Sinclair, begins with a “spoofy” pre-recorded instruction from the stage management to turn off our mobiles etc. It was received by the audience as hootingly funny, after which, a dramatic (but wonderful) compositional pastiche of thriller/Hitchcockian musical themes crashed in (no composer credited). The audience uncertain of the intentions of this, took their cue from the prior voice over. The audience, had been wrong footed, and were, I supposed, unsure from then on, whether this production was serious in its directorial intentions or not. Some laughed at the extremities of the playing choices believing them to be intentionally funny, some attempted to hold onto their underlying period history to add to the growing tension.

That the two young murderers Brandon (Anthony Gee) and Granillo (Anthony Gooley) are dressed in clothing so wrong for the period, especially the rubber soled shoes, (Set and Costume Design, Luke Ede; Assistant to Costume, Marissa Dale Johnson) and do not demonstrate the physical and vocal class of the luxurious Mayfair society that they purportedly are of, undermines, further, the confidence of the audience’s belief in the seriousness of this production. Let alone the terrible management by the actors of the prop alcohol, the whiskey decanter, empty long before the script intimates, in the playing of the real time unravelling of the play. That Sarah Snook (Leila Arden) and Gig Clarke (Kenneth Raglan) are so winningly embodied in the period manners and culture and so damn straight about it in their confident playing, standing and playing in scenes with these two other actors, only further places the audience’s belief system with one foot in campy spoof land and the other in deadly earnest truthfulness. This is a shame, for though, in the first two acts of the play the two leading men do not have the physical or vocal ‘chops’ of the play’s world, when they do get to the dramatic last act, Mr Gee, especially, demonstrates that he can play the dramatic stuff with much believable conviction. After the tentatively ‘torn’ responses of the audience to the developments and characters of the first two acts there was in the thrilling climax to the play in the third act concentrated, gripped attention.

This has to do with a naturalistic and beautifully judged cameo performance contributed by Bob Baines as the father of the dead boy, Sir Johnstone Kentley, unwitting to the horror in the chest, and then, mostly, by a towering piece of bravura acting by Josh Quong Tart as Rupert Cadell, the wise, cynical, crippled war veteran who instinctively detects the vibrations of a cruel inhumanity emanating from his hosts. Character depth and empathetic insight expressed with daring, and not often seen, on Australian stages, courage of technical choices, by Mr Quong Tart brings a veracity of truthfulness and seriousness to all that he has to do and say, so much so, that he confronts and converts the unsure in the audience, as to the tenor of the play’s power. A pin drop could be heard in the auditorium in the last twenty minutes of the play and even in his contributions to the earlier acts.

This production, probably lacks the budget access to give this play its deserved details, here, but if you can overlook that, you will have a very interesting time. The Set and properties are piecemeal, the lighting is atmospheric but not particularly good (Matt Cox), and the Sound Design is very unconvincing (Emily MaGuire). But this is a well written play and is an exemplar of its kind, with some actors, deliciously, flaunting the opportunity to act.

The Leopold and Loeb story has been used as well, in a 1956 novel by Meyer Levin called COMPULSION, also made into a film in 1959 starring Orson Welles, and again in 1997 in an award winning play by the Academy Award winning screen writer John Logan (GLADIATOR): NEVER THE SINNER - well worth a look.

This is the centenary year of the birth of Terence Rattigan, and a feast of his plays have been revived in the present London theatre season. FLARE PATH and CAUSE CELEBRE two of them and certainly not the equal of say, THE DEEP BLUE SEA, THE WINSLOW BOY, SEPARATE TABLES and a recently unearthed piece AFTER THE DANCE. All have resonances beyond the “Aunt Edna” milieu’s that he is reviled for. In fact AFTER THE DANCE, created at the National Theatre, last year, has been called a masterpiece of cultural observation and writing. Similarly, when you look past the comic superficialities, which are distractingly alluring, of Noel Coward’s HAYFEVER, DESIGN FOR LIVING, PRESENT LAUGHTER and the great PRIVATE LIVES, one can divine acerbic observations and bitter truths of the cultural times that may have been sugar coated to escape the vigilant, but not necessarily keen, beady eyes of the Lord Chamberlain and his pencil. Recently I read an Emlyn Williams play called ACCORD, and was shocked at most of its contemporaneities.

It is a shame that there is sometimes a snobbery about these writers and others like them for there is a treasure trove there for the present audience that is as rich as the Restoration Play greats, without the difficulties of a dense language expression. Entertaining, moralistic (in a positive sense) and great roles for actors to play. Just let the plays speak for themselves and respect and capture the style of the times and the three E’s: Entertainment, Enlightenment and Ecstasy might return to our theatres. Where is Mr Cotterell or Mr Fisher to bring these plays to life? Waiting, I dare say, for an invitation from the leading companies to ask them to contribute their knowledgeable where-with-all to our culture.

Although Mr Sinclair’s production is not as could be, it is worth a visit and certainly something to ponder when thinking of the writing for the theatre today.

P.S. I should declare that many years ago I played Granillo in collusion with the great Peter Whitford as my Brandon and the just as great John Krummel as Rupert Cadell. Anna Marie Winchester and the gorgeous Joan Bruce was there as well. This was out at the long, long missed Marian Street Theatre at Killara (the building is still there. Can't we reclaim it or something? The North Side needs more than Glen Street, Yes?) It was run by Peter Collingwood and was quietly referred to, because of the luminous theatricality of many of the productions and plays and casts, as the TEMPLE OF CAMP. Those were the days. Lest we forget.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr J.,

I can highly recommend the most recent film based on the case: 1992's haunting, black and white "arthouse" retelling - SWOON. It, like the production reviewed above, occasionally uses anachronistic props and clothing - but intentionally and to great effect.

I still regret that my parents would not allow me to attend that long ago production at Marion St because of "inappropriate content". (Yet multiple visits to Jim Sharman's ".. Rocky Horror" at around the same time was totally acceptable).

All the best,


Anonymous said...

A bit harsh on the 'thrill killers' Kev (broken collar bone and all on opening night) but I certainly agree with the focus of your praise re Bob, Leila and Gig and yes, Mr Tart was fearless but I couldn't hear much of what he was actually saying when 'Rupert' went almost TV vocals naturalistic in his armchair waxing for much of the last twenty nor I thought did he have the equipment/gravitas (where did I come up with that? :) for his screaming denunciation of their heinous crime just before he whistles for the Coppers. Also Love the extra info you have supplied re the history of this piece and it's genre.