The exuberant, ornamental setting of the Oxford Union is not one that works for every play, yet as I entered the Macmillan Room, I was immediately transported into the decadent, aristocratic world of ROPE, a Hamilton play later made famous by Hitchcock’s 1948 adaptation. As I walked tentatively over the luxurious rugs which formed the ‘stage’, I was struck by the intimacy of the setting: rickety wooden chairs and benches were tightly, and I mean tightly, packed into the room, with the audience surrounding the action.
Ramping up the tension, it would seem, was the order of the day for the ROPE production team. The play opened, not with a bang, but with a slightly awkward silence as, in a neat piece of choreography, the lamps are extinguished, and darkness fills the room, leaving the curious audience straining to view the deposition of the murdered body into the chest which forms the centrepiece both of the room and the play. Finally, action begins, as the audience is hurled into the intoxicating and highly-absorbing world of Oxford students, Brandon (Joe Prospero) and Granillo/Granno (Jonathan Purkiss). The two students, inspired by Nietzsche, commit a motiveless murder, eluding detection by fashioning around the crime a complex tale: ‘the perfect story to the perfect crime’. Yet, in an act of arrogant exhibitionism, the pair daringly dangle their crime right under the noses, or rather plates, of the innocent victim’s family and friends, inviting them to a dinner party in which they will eat off the very chest in which the body is concealed. This scene is excellently executed, as the airy-minded guests circle around the salmon sandwich-covered chest, bickering over the arbitrary spelling of ‘Caddell’, while Granno stands in the corner, breathing heavily, and swigging whisky from a seemingly endless supply of liquor.
The basic premise of the play is simple, yet decidedly ‘clever-clever’; self-conscious allusions to the theatre audiences and irony pervade the script in what could have come across in a somewhat hackneyed fashion. However, these elements are handled admirably by the director, Susanna Quirke, and the impressive cast, who avoid excessive lingering over these moments, choosing instead to focus on the aesthetic and moral intrigues of the play.
While the cast were, as a whole, decidedly strong and well-directed, Prospero and Fortune, perhaps spurred on by their propitious nomenclature, stood out in their utterly absorbing depictions of these exceedingly adroit men. Indeed, watching the pair apprehensively dance around one another in a battle of wits was stunning – a reassuring glimpse of the fantastic acting that Oxford has to offer. Greenfield assumed the role of the twittering airhead, Leila Arden, with disconcertingly natural ease, while even the minor characters such as Sabot (Luke Rollason) and Kentley (Aleksander Cvetkovic) were played with notable zest. Purkiss’s Granillo was, however, slightly in danger of being over-acted, as the hysterical accomplice was perpetually hovering, intensely gazing into the distance while he maniacally quaffed his latest drink, in between each laboured breath. Nonetheless, the cast as a consort are enthralling, exhibiting their prodigious talent in an exhilarating and dexterous performance.
ROPE, as anticipated, is a thrilling viewing experience. Indeed, the play may not be as intellectually rigorous as Dostoevsky, but it provides more than mere sensationalism as it tussles with issues of art in relation to the negligible value of the individual life. It may not provide you with much opportunity to escape from the world of Oxford, but it’s certainly a riveting watch.
**** (4 Stars)
PHOTOS/ Dan Fox and Lauren Magee