Review: ROPE (Shaw Festival)

by Lynn on June 6, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Patrick Hamilton

Directed by Jani Lauzon

Designed by Joanna Yu

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Original music and sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Élodie Gillett

Kyle Golemba

Alexis Gordon

Patty Jamieson

Peter Millard

Travis Seetoo

Michael Therriault

Kelly Wong

Director Jani Lauzon does a Herculean job of giving this second-rate play a stylish production.

The Story. Wyndham Brandon, with the help of his close friend Charles Granillo, has murdered Ronald Kentley, a fellow undergraduate at Oxford University, by strangling him with rope. Brandon says: “I have done murder…I have committed murder. I have committed passionless—motivelesss-faultless-and clueless murder. Bloodless and noiseless murder…I have killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing. And I am alive.”  He fairly bubbles with the joy of it. Charles Granillo, the meeker of the two, easily spooked and nervous, went along with the plan. It’s suggested the two are gay which would have been daring in 1929 as homosexuality was a crime, punishable with prison in 1929 right up until 1965.

They put the body in a chest that is in the drawing room of the house in Mayfair that Brandon and Granillo share. For Brandon’s added ‘fun’ they plan a dinner party and invite Ronald’s father Sir Johnstone Kentley, Ronald’s aunt Mrs. Debenham, Kenneth Raglan, a fellow student at Oxford University, Leila Arden, a buoyant young woman and Rupert Cadell, a brooding poet.

The dinner party will be held in the drawing room and the food will be served on top of the chest. Brandon thinks this is a perfect turn of events. When the party is over Brandon and Granillo will put the body in their car and drive to Oxford where they will dispose of it.

The Production.  Director Jani Lauzon nicely sets up the premise in a quick scene. In the gloom of Louise Guinand’s atmospheric lighting,  Brandon (Kelly Wong) and Granillo (Travis Seetoo) struggle to carry the body of Ronald Kentley. The lights go out and we hear the effort of the two men in the dark and then the snap of the chest closing with the body inside. One gets the sense that Brandon has control over Granillo and likes it that way. There is a suggestion in the play that Brandon and Granillo are lovers but Lauzon approaches this subtly and not overtly. At one point Brandon, who is standing behind Granillo who is in a chair, puts his hands on Granillo’s shoulders. It’s a sign of affection and perhaps ‘ownership.’ It’s a small gesture but it speaks volumes about the relationship.

Joanna Yu has designed a stylish set that is well appointed with fine furniture. The chest is prominently upstage centre. At times Guinand’s lighting illuminates through the back wall to scenes ‘off stage’ adding a conspiratorial note. While the two men wait for their guests, Brandon finds a Coliseum music hall ticket of Ronald Kentley on the floor and blames Granillo, played by Travis Seetoo, as skittish and overanxious . The ticket apparently fell out of Ronald’s pocket in the move to the chest—a potentially disastrous blunder. Granillo puts the ticket in his vest pocket but it’s larger than the pocket and the fact that it’s orange makes its presence obvious (in the play text the ticket is blue). That ticket seemed like neon flashing in that pocket.

Jani Lauzon creates an interesting dynamic between Brandon and his servant, Sabot (a man in the text, but played here with a nice sense of exasperation by Élodie Gillette, a woman). Whenever the doorbell rings, Brandon rushes to answer it rather than letting Sabot do it. Gillette shows frustration with a stern facial expression. As Brandon, Kelly Wong has that smooth charm that drips sarcasm and a sense of entitlement. Brandon says something cutting to Sabot as she walks off and that causes her to stop (her back is to the audience), stiffen in exasperation and leave. That little bit of business says so much about the class system of the British and the sense of position of the French (Sabot is French).

Class factors prominently in Patrick Hamilton’s play. Both Kenneth Raglan (Kyle Golemba) and Rupert Cadell (Michael Therriault) arrive at the dinner party formally dressed thinking that was proper. But Brandon and Granillo are not in formal attire, merely well-made suits, causing their two guests to feel uncomfortable because they are overdressed and weren’t told about the attire. Perhaps this is another way that Brandon controls the situation for his own amusement.

Kenneth Raglan is a superficial but good humoured young man, but Kyle Golemba does not seem comfortable with the character’s ‘posh’ language and over accentuates words such as “raaaather” and “I, say” and makes it all sound artificial instead of natural for the character.

The dinner party is complete when Leila Arden (Alexis Gordon), Sir Johnstone Kentley (Peter Millard) and Mrs. Debenham (Patty Jamieson) arrive. Leila Arden is a bit of a silly young woman (a match for Kenneth Raglan) and is well played with buoyant enthusiasm by Alexis Gordon. Peter Millard illuminates the decency and courtliness of Sir Johnstone Kentley, Ronald’s father. And Mrs. Debenham is a total mystery because she rarely says anything at all. Patty Jamieson handles Mrs. Debenham’s lack of opinion on anything with an intriguing sense of awkwardness and embarrassment. If Patrick Hamilton is trying to make a statement about the different classes of women here between the silly, talkative Leila Arden and the monosyllabic Mrs. Debenham who just wants to be left alone, then it’s not clear. Mrs. Debenham is a part that has one scratching ones head as to why she is there at all.

Rupert Cadell, the brooding, cynical poet, is the best written character and is beautifully played with nuance and subtlety by Michael Therriault. Cadell was wounded in WWI and walks with a limp and a cane. He is elegant, articulate and watchful. The world and his experiences have soured him but he is a man of moral sturdiness and that comes out clearly when he realizes what has happened to Ronald Kentley. He demolishes any argument Brandon might have about the situation and informs both Brandon and Granillo he has every intention to turn them in to the police. The play seems to collapse in the last quick ten minutes as Cadell solves the crime we knew about from the beginning.

It’s a valiant effort by Jani Lauzon and some of her cast to lift this second-rate play. It’s hardly a psychological thriller and certainly not an exploration of a nihilistic attitude. It’s merely a bored rich boy wanting to have a bit of fun by killing a decent young man without any thought of the consequences to his family etc.

Comment. I was being perverse when I reviewed Getting Married first last week, even though it was not the opening production of The Shaw Festival season. Since it is called The Shaw Festival (for the moment) I think it only right that I review a play by the Festival’s namesake.

Rope by Patrick Hamilton (written in 1929) opened the Shaw Festival season in the small Royal George Theatre, without organized fanfare, pomp, ceremony or a sense of occasion. Billed in the brochure as the “Opening Celebration” the knowledgeable Shaw audience came dressed in their tuxes and finery. The Artistic Director and Executive Director chose to dress ‘down’ for the occasion as if for a casual Friday at the office—no suit, tie, etc. I guess they didn’t get the memo. They did dress up two days later for the opening of the dreary Festival Theatre production of Brigadoon that was followed by a big ticket dinner with donors and sponsors.

Much is made of Rope being made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. That does not give the play cache at all. Hitchcock did not use Patrick Hamilton’s play as the script. He had Arthur Laurents write a completely new script (he of West Side Story and Gypsy fame). He also changed the setting from London to New York.

It follows a celebrated case in which two Chicago teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from privileged backgrounds, went on a crime spree and ended it with killing an innocent 14 year-old-boy for no other reason than the fun of it.

References in Rope to Friedrich Nietzsche, “a philosopher-moralist” and his ideas of nihilism don’t make the play intellectual or Brandon and Granillo Nietzschean nihilists, nor is the play a first rate psychological thriller. Brandon talked a good streak about but when faced with the intellectual morality of Rupert Cadell Brandon and Granillo were found out and proved guilty in the last 10 minutes of the play, without one whimper of an argument from either man.

For a first rate psychological thriller go to Patrick Hamilton’s 1939 play Gas Light in which a husband sews seeds of doubt in his wife’s mind, making her think she is going mad. Chilling. As for Rope, nope.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Opened: May 24, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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