It takes a certain amount of courage to keep your audience in both literal and figurative darkness for the first few minutes of a play. A lifeless form was dragged into the middle of the Macmillan Room and deposited in the chest between the two facing banks of audience, and even once the two murderers had started talking, the room remained dark. Then, gradually, the lights were switched on. The lighting for this production consisted, unless I missed some cunningly concealed Fresnels, of four standard lamps and a table lamp. This, whilst perfectly adequate for lighting actors’ faces, created some arresting silhouettes and allowed light and shadow to fall across their faces in occasionally haunting ways. The setting, a sea of oak-panelling and a stone fireplace, also brought out the Gothic aspects of the play.
That balance between the literal light and the dark was one of many balances which the play struck with apparent ease. ROPE owes much to melodrama, and melodrama walks a tightrope between horror and humour. The audience was quick to laugh and it was sometimes easy to forget there was a body in the chest. The cast seemed to swell a little at this and got into the stride of the new rhythms of performance laid down by the audience’s laughter. The man who led this was Jared Fortune as Rupert Cadell, who is responsible for many of the gear-changes in the play as he moves from waspish wit to dogged investigator to outraged human and whose magnificent performance in all these roles formed an anchor around which the rest of the play could maneuver.
Amply supported by Constance Greenfield’s delightfully murderable society belle Leila Arden and Alexander Stutt’s simpering Kenneth Raglan, both of whose characters made me want to ask if I could borrow the rope for a minute, the comedy was at the fore for much of the play. This is not least because there are constant references to murder, Greenfield at one point suggesting and Joe Prospero’s Wyndham Brandon admitting, ironically but truthfully, that there is a dead body in the chest. This is such a knowing technique as to test an audience’s suspension of disbelief to the limit and yet, in this cast’s hands, it did not snap. The sense of ensemble had much to do with this, Aleksander Cvetkovic perhaps exemplifying balance with the moment of poignancy as he left the party having executed with alacrity the elderly buffoon the play had required until then.
Once Cadell applies enough pressure to Brandon and Granillo, there is a point at which they snap and the comedy of manners-cum-ghost story unleashes a struggle for survival. Whilst physical violence is foregrounded earlier in the play, it still comes as a shock. Such a shock, in fact, that I had to ask myself whether I was taking this seriously. Yes, yes I was taking it seriously, but I was also tittering at some of the lines. This is entirely of a piece with the play as Cadell, in some ways an Everyman, is forced to lay his cards on the table now that the logic of Nietzsche that he supported has been followed to its end and resulted in murder.
ROPE runs at the Oxford Union until 23rd February; for more information or to book tickets please visit their website.