Nietzsche’s notion of the Übermensch receives one scant mention towards the end of Patrick Hamilton's Rope, yet it is the driving force that underpins the play. Although easily classified as a thriller, the traditional tension of a murder mystery is displaced in Rope. There is no crime to solve and no villainous plot to unravel. In the first few minutes we are calmly told all that has gone before by the architect of what he believes to be the perfect, undetectable crime, committed because it could be and because his philosophical mentor believed in the ultimate goodness of living dangerously.
The play’s thrill comes from the unease and anxiety the dialogue generates
The supremely confident, posh, privileged and overwhelmingly ego-centric Wyndham Brandon convinces the impressionable Charles Granillo that they can commit a “passionless, motiveless, faultless and clueless murder”. The victim is to be their successful fellow student and accomplished athlete Ronald Kentley for no reason other than he exists and is accessible. The deed done, Kentley’s body is placed in a wooden trunk on which they serve a cold collation during a supper party to which the boy’s father is invited, along with three other guests. As the evening progresses Brandon increasingly revels in the cruel game he is playing.
Graeme Dalling holds the stage supremely as Brandon. He exudes the confidence and manipulative skills that would have been required to convince his partner-in-crime to go along with his scheme and continues with his domination of the evening’s events, just occasionally revealing moments of nervousness as his final uncovering approaches and his control of events diminishes. From the outset John Black contrasts with his nervous disposition and sense of doubt, making his ability to be controlled perfectly credible. Kitty Newbury and Rick Yale capture the flippancy of this youthful social elite with grace and affectation, casting wit and repartee around with lighthearted abandon and often hitting nearer to the mark than they can imagine. Robert Cohen movingly captures what will be the devastating effect of losing his son when he learns that the boy has not returned home for dinner, along with its enormity and heartbreaking consequences. Karina Mills as the maid knows her place and calmly portrays the dutifulness and obedience of her position, but it is left to Neil James as Cadell to expose the crime. With the persistence and observation of a detective and the linguistic dexterity of a poet he relentlessly works away to finally destroy the ultimately vulnerable Brandon.
The play’s tension derives from the possibility of their vile deed being revealed. Yet given that the story is so well-known it is not even a question of ‘if’ but of how and at what moment. When will the man who has circumstantial evidence of their crime literally blow the whistle or will he back down at the last minute? The play’s thrill comes from the unease and anxiety the dialogue generates and the ‘if only they knew’ factor. It’s difficult to sustain and there are moments when this seems stretched out.
For those who know the superb musical version of this alarming crime, Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, it’s difficult not to compare the treatment of the subject. The psychological and manipulative aspects of that version are missing in Hamilton’s play, but that is not the fault of director Roger Kay who more than does justice to the author’s intentions.