THEATRE / Murder most horrid: Paul Taylor finds chilling parallels in Keith Baxter's production of Patrick Hamilton's Rope at Wyndham's

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The Independent Culture
The marble figurine of a male nude has been turned so that it faces the wall, a cynically considerate touch in a play whose two principals don't go to similar lengths to spare the feelings of human beings. Through the silvery dusk, also posed like an art work, three more naked males can be discerned. You'd call it a tableau vivant, except that it's not so vivant as it turns out. The arrangement tricks you in a shuddery, sick-joke manner that a Webster or a Tourner would have relished. You suppose that, if any of them is dead, it's the one who is draped over the lap of the one sitting up against the large wooden chest, but then the prone body stirs and moves away, leaving the other to flop forward, a piece of newly slaughtered meat.

Though its author Patrick Hamilton was at pains to deny it, his 1929 thriller Rope has long been supposed to have strong homosexual undercurrents, not least for its distinct similarities to the real-life Leopold and Loeb case. Like those two gay, conceitedly intelligent sons of Chicago millionaires, the couple of swanky Oxford undergrads in Hamilton's drama think they have concocted the perfect bloodless, clueless, motiveless murder, kidnapping and strangling an innocent fellow student.

They do so as a heartless, philosophical stunt. In sniggering contempt of lesser beings, they even throw a supper party on the corpse-concealing chest, to which they invite the deceased's father and aunt.

Played on a set that depicts the Mayfair mansion flat in skewed Expressionist angles, Keith Baxter's fine production makes the erotic subtext quite explicit. In a moment of privacy and false security towards the end, the two murderers - the icily dominant Brandon (Tristan Gemmill) and his weaker, increasingly rattled disciple, Granillo (James Buller) - reveal the sexual kick they get out of the whole business by engaging in a spot of mutual striptease-and-strangulation before hurling themselves in ravenous carnal abandonment on the top of the chest. By moving the play to 1931, Baxter also tries to relate the youths' Nietzschean tendencies to the rise of Fascism in that 'low, dishonest decade'.

It was service in the First World War that physically crippled and spiritually damaged the older friend and poet, who first suspects and then steels himself to expose Brandon and Granillo. A limping cross between Wilde and Hamlet, Rupert Cadell is played by the charismatic Anthony Head, who is better at the languid asperities and puzzled hauteur than the pained contradictions and quavery unbosomings. Rupert's war experience has left him with a sweeping cynicism about life, and to that extent his outlook chimes with that of the youths, but in him, it's just the obverse side of an abnormally acute sense of life's value. Sipping cigarettes, and with a deliberately goading air of superiority, he sets out to undermine Brandon's kinky bravado.

I started out thinking that the nearest contemporary equivalent of the case was the Menendez brothers' alleged killings in Los Angeles. But even if they are guilty, that crime is not motiveless. The closest parallel, you realise with a sick jolt, is the Bulger murder.

'Rope' continues at Wyndham's Theatre (Box office: 071-867 1116)

(Photograph omitted)