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Theatre Reviews Shaw Festival 2019: Rope proves a surprisingly gripping season opener

Michael Therriault as Rupert Cadell, Travis Seetoo as Charles Granillo and Kelly Wong as Wyndham Brandon in Rope.

Emily Cooper/Shaw Festival

  • Title: Rope
  • Written by: Patrick Hamilton
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Director: Jani Lauzon
  • Actors: Kelly Wong, Travis Seetoo and Michael Therriault
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Royal George Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 12

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The Shaw Festival has opened its 2019 season with a murder play that is not a mystery play.

We know who killed whom and why right off the bat in Rope, a 1929 thriller by the underappreciated British playwright Patrick Hamilton that is, despite the overtness of its dramatic gambit, surprisingly gripping.

A pseudo-intellectual named Wyndham Brandon and his friend Charles Granillo – what marvellous character names! – have murdered a fellow upper-class undergraduate named Ronald for the thrill of it, or so they suppose.

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“I have killed for the sake of killing,” is how Wyndham, the cooler of the two, specifically puts it, outlining his lack of a motive in an opening speech that you might consider over-extended exposition if it weren’t delivered with such compelling cockiness by Kelly Wong.

As his accomplice (and implied lover) Charles, Travis Seetoo shakes by his side, giving what is, ultimately, an unnervingly convincing portrait of a breakdown in slow-motion.

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Further for the sick sake of it, Wyndham and Charles have now invited a group of people over to dine in the parlour where Ronald’s strangled, lifeless body lies locked in a chest. Perversely, they have luncheon laid out upon this makeshift coffin as if it were a coffee table.

The murderers’ unknowing guests include Ronald’s father (Peter Millard) and aunt (Patty Jamieson), as well as a pair of fellow students named Kenneth and Leila who the murderers view as dim-witted. (Kyle Golemba and Alexis Gordon play these characters, instead, as lacking in confidence and self-effacing, respectively.)

Finally, there’s the poet Rupert Cadell (Michael Therriault), who Wyndham and Charles at one point consider inviting to partake in their motive-less murder because of his love of the nihilistic philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

A veteran who uses a cane because of an injury sustained in the Great War, Rupert drinks too much, but holds it well. And, like one of Oscar Wilde’s dandies, his constant proclamations about his lack of morality are a mask for a deeper moral seriousness that will ultimately lead him to play detective and refuse to ignore the elephant in the room. (Therriault, who can sometimes be too much as an actor, is colourful in the role and keeps his performance to just the right level of much-ness.)

Harold Pinter, famously, perhaps sarcastically, described his plays as being about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet,” which was a metaphor. Hamilton’s Rope, as suffused with indirect menace as any Pinter play, is literally about the body hidden in the parlour-room chest.

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That on-the-nose nature of Hamilton’s work may be why critics have taken him less seriously as a dramatist than, say, Pinter, who counted him among his inspirations. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s work endures in popular culture.

Rope remains known because of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 movie adaptation with Jimmy Stewart, which was meant to look as if it had been filmed in a single take, while Hamilton’s 1938’s melodrama Gas Light, which was filmed twice, gives us the expression “gaslighting” that has regained in popularity today to describe a form of psychological undermining.

In her production of Rope at the Shaw Festival, director Jani Lauzon removes an act break from the original play, but otherwise doesn’t do anything fancy in her staging; no cocky pseudo-intellectual, she.

The Shaw Festival has opened its 2019 season with Rope, a murder play that is not a mystery play.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival

The action unfolds simply and straight-forwardly on a handsome set by Joanna Yu, which is realistic with the exception of walls that occasionally turn see-through to allow us to see into the foyer and a staircase that leads upstairs.

But while Rope obviously has its old-fashioned and artificial elements as drama, it also has a mysterious energy to it, as if that unseen corpse in the chest is an engine revving up every exchange on stage, even the most banal flirtations between Leila and Kenneth.

Indeed, you could see the body as a dramatic metaphor for all those horrible things that we politely talk around in parlour rooms of any era.

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Rope is well-known for its homosexual (or homophobic) subtext, but Lauzon wisely doesn’t play that up here. Instead, her production subtly hints other horrors hidden in plain sight.

Sabot (Élodie Gillett), a French maid, takes a short suspicious look at the chest as if all chests in wealthy households have something awful hidden in them. Then, there’s the aunt, Mrs. Debenham, who can’t get a sensible sentence out and seems like an underwritten source of comic relief on the page, but is unsettling on the stage in Jamieson’s pathos-filled performance. What is going on, unsaid, or unsayable, in this society of ours? What obvious traumas do we ignore?

You can fill in the blanks, or just enjoy the thriller as a thriller in this well-acted production. While it may be primarily considered a piece of entertainment rather than art, Rope gives us enough to hang ourselves, should we wish.

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