Brighton Fringe 2018
What makes someone commit murder?
It’s interesting that two out of three Pretty Villain productions in this Fringe Festival are about killers. Two very different treatments, though. ‘Myra’ gave us what purported to be the ‘real’ Myra Hindley, there on the stage in front of us; while ‘Rope’ gives an outing to Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play about a different sort of killing.
Both offerings concern sensational events. The 1960s Moors Murder killings have become deeply embedded in the British psyche, with Myra Hindley’s photograph, eyes staring defiantly towards the viewer, achieving iconic status. Patrick Hamilton based ‘Rope’ on the 1924 ‘Leopold-Loeb’ murder, where two wealthy students at the University of Chicago killed a fourteen-year-old in what was talked about at the time as ‘The Crime of the Century’.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb murdered the youngster simply because they thought they could. They considered themselves sufficiently intellectually superior to be able to commit the perfect crime. Taking a life, without any motive or profit, just for the thrill, and because they could – like Nietzchean Supermen.
Hamilton’s play moves the action to London, where a smart Mayfair flat is occupied by two wealthy Oxford students, Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo. They are stylish, clever and intellectually self-confident. They may well be lovers, too, bound together against the outside world. Like the Americans, Brandon in particular seems to be a disciple of Nietzche, convinced of his personal superiority to the rest of humanity.
When the play opens, they have strangled a fellow student, Ronald Kentley, and hidden his body in a large wooden chest. Because they could. Brandon wants to cap their action by hosting a party for their friends, with the body still in the room. How’s that for hubris?
Hamilton’s play has quite a dated style. The identity of the killers is known from the outset, so the only suspense lies in whether they will get caught – a cat-and-mouse game of spotting tiny clues and deflecting lines of questioning. ‘Rope’ has some of the same feeling as his later play ‘Gas Light’. It’s all upper middle class social mores, with chaps mostly addressing each other by just their surnames – the same between-the-wars world portrayed by Terence Rattigan. Rattigan lived in Brighton for a long time, if we’re talking Brighton theatre connections; and Patrick Hamilton was from Hassocks, so he was a local boy too. His novel ‘The West Pier’ was described by Graham Greene as ‘the best book written about Brighton’. Praise indeed from the author of ‘Brighton Rock’.
So putting Hamilton’s play into Brighton Fringe makes sense, and director Roger Kay has cleverly decided not to attempt any kind of an update of interpretation or staging, but to give us ‘Rope’ very much as a pre-war audience would have seen it.
Just the one set throughout, with the large wooden chest centre stage. A lot of Rialto productions go for minimalism, with almost no clutter on the bare black stage. For this one, though, we had a number of chairs, a standard lamp, tables for telephone and drinks – a busy location for the cast to navigate.
A large cast, too, for the space. Seven in all – (if you exclude the body in the chest). At the beginning it’s just the two murderers, and Brandon can barely conceal his glee at his own genius. Not only have they done the deed, but as an extra frisson they will use the wooden chest as a table to serve food and drink to the victim’s father, just inches above his son’s body. (That’s worthy of a Greek Tragedy – something written by Aeschylus, perhaps). We’re told all of this at the very beginning by the main characters – reminding each other of the action that they can only just have completed. The author obviously lived before today’s Creative Writing mantra of “Show – Don’t Tell”.
Brandon’s a supremely self-confident individual; sleek fair hair, sports jacket and cord trousers. Student at Oxford ‘Varsity’. Graeme Dalling played his lines loud, with the clarity of tone of the English upper classes. By contrast, John Black’s Granillo is unnerved by the risks they are taking; never still, fidgeting nervously. Black’s dark hair was slightly lank, and his black waistcoat was worn over a shirt with sleeves rolled back and secured with armbands. He looked much less at ease than his companion – not happy at all.
I’m always fascinated by the names authors give their characters. Granillo. Does it sound just a bit – foreign? Italian, probably. Interesting that he’s the one who’s cracking under pressure and seeking relief in drink. Remember that Hamilton wrote this piece in the nineteen twenties, when the Empire still lorded it over ‘Johnny Foreigner’. And while we’re on names – the maid, when she finally appears, is called Sabot. A name with deep working class associations. Sabots were the wooden clogs that French workers wore, like the Dutch, because they couldn’t afford leather shoes. Weavers threw them into the mechanical looms to destroy the threat to their livelihood. It’s the origin of the word ‘sabotage’. In the play’s first productions, Sabot was male – a butler not a maid. The director has increased the female presence in this one, and Karine Mills gives an intriguing performance – I couldn’t decide just how much she knew about her employers’ activities.
Then the guests appear. Kitty Newbury’s Leila is a Twenties vision, in a clinging pink gown and long string of pearls. Raglan is another Oxford student, and Rick Yale plays him as a blond-haired Hooray Henry, complete with garish striped blazer and a repartee largely about sport. These two are straight out of something by Noel Coward – ‘Hay Fever’, perhaps – and they lose no time starting to flirt with each other. ‘Raglan’ is another name that carries upper-class associations – is he related to the Lord Raglan of Crimean War fame?
When Robert Cohen as Sir Johnstone, the boy’s father, arrives, he’s come formally dressed for dinner. All in black – he’s the only one – terribly poignant as we already knew the unspeakable horror that was hidden so very close. Closely followed by Cadell, a big man in an almost white linen suit. Names again. ‘Cadell’ is a Welsh word meaning ‘battle’. The author is preparing us for the verbal battle at the end, when Cadell clashes with Brandon and finally gets to the truth.
Neil James as Cadell is the nemesis in this play – he’s the one who senses that something isn’t right, and whose forensic questioning picks up on tiny clues that finally expose the murderers. He reminded me of Martin Bell the war reporter, in his trademark white suit. (they’re rather similar facially, too). The whiteness seemed to evoke Justice, in opposition to Sir Johnstone’s association with Death. Director Roger Kay has achieved some powerful symbolism in this production.
He’s done more than that. Hamilton’s play be clunky and stiff by the standards of modern theatre, but this production of ‘Rope’ gave me a sense of how exciting it must have looked all those decades ago – it’s almost ninety years old, after all. Rather like going for a ride on a restored steam railway. Evocative. And a perfect foil for ‘Myra’.