“People argue about the queerest things nowadays”
Perhaps an odd choice for a festive show, Rope at the Almeida Theatre is a dark tale of murder, abusive relationships and a dinner party (which I guess is what Christmas is about for some people…) Two Oxford students, Brandon and Granillo murder a third for the existential thrill of committing the ‘perfect murder’, they then invite people, including the dead boy’s father, round for supper, which is served on the chest where the body is stashed. Only one guest begins to suspect something is amiss, Rupert Cadell, a WWI veteran now a world-weary Nietzschean and over the course of the evening, the men try to argue the case for their intellectual superiority and play the dangerous game of trying to get away with murder.
The most arresting thing about this production upon entering the theatre is that it is presented in the round. This is a first for the Almeida and it is highly effective. It gives the real sense of being in the room with the protagonists and also has the visually pleasing effect of placing the chest in the centre of the action, both physically and metaphorically. This worked beautifully in the scenes which had several of the characters on stage, but I felt that when there was just two or three of them, more could have been done to utilise this format: the final face-off scene in particular was very static and played as if on a normal stage. This worked fine for us in our central seats but people to the side would have just seen the back of one or other of the main characters for the final 20 minutes of the play.
Bertie Carvel’s Rupert is a fascinating creation: a wounded creature, overflowing with sardonic wit and a razor-sharp mind, but beneath it all the sense of an aching sadness that is barely concealed. And I found it a little surprising that the play actually became about his journey: as he slowly uncovers the truth of the evening’s events, he comes to realise that his world-view, coloured horribly by his wartime experiences which he viewed as murder, is perhaps skewed and that what he is witnessing is in fact what murder really is. The part is played with such care and devotion by Carvel, it really is a sight to behold. Blake Ritson is also excellent as the cunning, manipulative Brandon whose relationship with Granillo is never clearly spelt out (they’ve been a gay couple in previous productions) but it is clear he is the driving force behind events. Alex Waldmann as Granillo suffered a little bit with a less appealing part, already weighed down with the consequences at the outset and given to hysteric outbursts, I felt like there could have been more to him than just fluster. Elsewhere Henry Lloyd-Hughes and Phoebe Waller-Bridge provided some great comic relief as the somewhat vacuous other guests at the dinner party.
Having booked for the show with the Q+A session at the end was also highly illuminating. It was nice to see the actors talking about the processes behind their choices, Waldmann, Ritson and above all Carvel were all very impressive and whilst Lloyd-Hughes may have played it for laughs rather than contributing on an intellectual level, he was goofily charming. It was particularly interesting to hear that Brandon and Granillo are not actually described as being gay anywhere in the text or stage directions and that the ambiguity bemoaned by certain members of the press is actually the original reading of the text. And their tales of reactions to the first scene being played in the dark were genius, someone actually used an i-Phone to help them see, and they’ve been playing with the temperature controls to ensure people didn’t drift off to sleep!
Just a couple of weeks of this run remain and it is sold out, but day seats are available for £15 in person or by phone. Rope is a much more engaging look at inter-war ennui amongst the privileged than the execrable Pains of Youth and a great chance to see how familiar theatrical spaces can be reconfigured (Measure for Measure will apparently not be in the round) but something was a bit lacking for me in the end (if not for my colleague!).
Running time: 110 minutes, with no interval
Programme cost: £3