Critics who didn't like this staging complained that it would "delight homophobes" and that "in the wake of the James Bulger case, killing for kicks seems an obscene basis for what even Hamilton admitted was no more than a night of entertainment. Rope remains the theatrical equivalent of a video nasty." Gareth Armstrong's very enjoyable new production at the beautifully refurbished and revitalised Salisbury Playhouse confirms that the second of these charges is absurd.
His staging also emphasises, if less determinedly, the erotic current between the two murderers; for Geoffrey Abbott's tall, conceited Brandon and Tam Williams's jittery Granillo, getting off on one another and getting off on the high-risk conspiratorial situation seem, creepily, to amount to much the same thing. The immaculate living room set is dominated by a Leonardo drawing of a muscly male nude in back view, and at the end, when the pair are exposed, it comes alive, turns round and would have quite a tale to tell, no doubt, if given the time.
As Armstrong's production recognises, the character who transforms Rope from a smirking amoral shocker to a work of some ethical depth is also the figure who enthuses it with flamboyant theatrical vigour. To play Rupert Cadell, you need an actor who can do a comic star turn at the same time as showing you a man who is gradually shocked out of his dandy cynicism into normal moral outrage. To trace the journey from witty, philosophical impassivity to action, you need a performer who could play both a Wildean aesthete and Hamlet.
Dominating the proceedings with a wonderful rangy, negligent charisma, Jasper Britton's sardonic Rupert would be equally at home in a drawing room or on the Jacobean stage. He may not capture quite as well as Anthony Head did the fact that Rupert is half in love with Brandon, which gives a cruel, counter-tow to his flooding realisation that this youth is a monster. But all the other elements in the character's make-up are vividly there. Giving satiric, squiffy emphasis to the limp he sustained in the First World War as he repeatedly lunges for the whisky bottle, Britton's Rupert lets you see how that conflict wounded him emotionally and morally as well. Society recoils from the murder of individuals but sanctions the wholesale slaughter of a nation's youth; with a logic he now realises was false, Rupert has reacted to this hypocrisy by making light of individual life. The pain, shame and courage of this recognition would get rather shorter shrift, dramatically, if Rope were indeed the "theatrical equivalent of a video nasty".
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