Rope, Almeida, London

Still in the dark over the motive
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The Independent Culture

The first odd thing about Roger Michell's uncharacteristically imperfect production of Rope at the Almeida is the new in-the-round configuration that it gives to a theatre renowned for being more than fine already – in the peculiarly powerful brick-wall-embraced, end-stopped arrangement that architectural nature intended. I can see the reasoning behind the staging choice. It heightens the sense that the trunk – here hexagonal like the acting area – is the central focal point. That's certainly the object's dramatic due, given that it contains the corpse of the fellow student whom our two Nietzschean sophomores have just cold-bloodedly murdered and given that it provides the basis of their tittering, Titus Andronicus-like jape of tricking the slaughtered boy's father to treat it as a dining table and scoff off it.

On the other hand, part of the point of in-the-round theatre is that you should be able to see the expressions of the punters opposite you. This is supposed to emphasise that theatre is a medium in which reactions are contagious. But the Almeida is too big to accommodate this. Your counterparts, north or south of the theatrical equator, are rather distant and indistinct. The slight irritation of this is compounded by the first scene, which takes to an extreme the idea that the byplay between the two surviving youths should be played in darkness save for the flickering illumination of a coal fire. The production has the right kind of genuine but half-jokey Hitchcockian tension and it boasts a compellingly unusual performance by Bertie Carvel, in the role of the Wildean, First World War-surviving dandy who sees through the students and their game. There's a curiously elusive backbone to his languidness and he's a master of the disconcerting lunge into clarity, like someone flicking on a fluorescent light on over a tenebrous atrocity.

A few years ago, Keith Baxter directed a Chichester production of the play that began with a tableau of three naked men engaged in what appeared to be a sex game. It was striking and creepy in that it suggested the murder had taken place in a honey trap – a context more appropriate to a crime passionel. But Blake Ritson and Alex Waldmann, though both very convincing here as the undergrads, underplay the erotic kinkiness of the characters' only partly mutual mindset. The evening is, throughout, more drum-roll than bang.

To 6 February 2010 (020 7359 4404)