THE BASICS: ROPE, a psychological thriller by Patrick Hamilton, directed by Jani Lauzon, starring Kelly Wong, Travis Seetoo, and Michael Therriault is at The Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON in repertory through October 12, 2019 (905-468-2172 / 1-800-511-7429) www.shawfest.com Age recommendation: 14+ Full service bar downstairs, with gourmet ice cream, chocolates, coffee.
Runtime: 2 hours, 10 minutes with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Two Oxford undergraduates commit murder and then, to demonstrate their intellectual superiority, host a party for the victim’s friends with his body hidden in a decorative trunk-like chest in the center of the parlor room in their shared house in London, just to see if they can pull it off. They also invite their old professor, Rupert Cadell, whose cynicism may have influenced their thinking. You can peruse the entire program (playbill) here.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: ROPE is an example of a genre known as “the well made play” in which, usually, some major event happens before the curtain rises; some information is known to only some of the characters (and also the audience); in continuous, unbroken time the tension rises with several small reversals of fortune; there is at least one piece of incriminating evidence, often a letter which falls into the wrong hands; and there is a wrapping up of loose ends following a climax.
Ironically, George Bernard Shaw, for whom The Shaw Festival is named, detested “the well made play” and considered its various authors as hacks, saying that their motto was not “Art for art’s sake,” but “Success for money’s sake.”
But, when you look at the background of ROPE’s author, Patrick Hamilton, whose alcoholic father doomed the family to a life of poverty living in shabby boarding houses, you can forgive his desire to be a success for money’s sake. In fact, not only was ROPE (1929) a great success on stage, it was picked up by Alfred Hitchcock for a 1948 major motion picture. Hamilton’s other big stage success, GASLIGHT (1938) was made into a major motion picture directed by George Cukor in 1944.
If you follow generational cohorts, as I do, you’ll see that playwright Hamilton falls between two groups, too young to fight in World War I and too old for World War II (although he probably wouldn’t have been accepted due to being struck by a car in his youth). Born in 1904 he’s at the end of what Gertrude Stein called the “Lost Generation” – those who came of age during WWI and suffered tremendous cynicism and disillusionment with politics and society, making them “disoriented, wandering, and directionless.”
So, without a doubt, Hamilton had a dark view of the world, but obviously, one which struck a chord with many in his day. And there was something else. In 1924 two students from well-to-do Chicago families, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks for no particular reason. News accounts of this nihilism held great fascination at the time, fascination upon which 25-year-old playwright Hamilton could capitalize.
One of the great pleasures of visiting The Shaw Festival is seeing certain actors appearing in wildly different productions. And in this play, they’ve thrown in some of their most popular and most charming: Kelly Wong as Wyndham Brandon and Travis Seetoo as Charles Granillo, and Michael Therriault as Rupert Cadell. You can also see all three in the innocent Scottish fantasy musical BRIGADOON by Lerner and Loewe. It’s brilliant casting in that anytime any handsome, beloved actors are cast as “bad guys,” the effect on the audience is startling.
Here’s a tip. Much of the philosophical underpinning of Brandon and Granillo’s behavior is based on their understanding of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, the title of the play comes from a quote in his Thus Spake Zarathustra: “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman – a rope over an abyss.” If you’re interested, you can continue with Nietzsche in Shaw’s MAN AND SUPERMAN which will have only 17 performances at The Festival Theatre August 17 through October 5. Because of the length, all performances of MAN AND SUPERMAN will begin at 11:00 a.m.
Oh, one minor tip. The world of ROPE is a drinking culture and one particular drink you’ll hear mentioned often is “Gin and It” with the “it” being short for Italian, specifically, Sweet Vermouth (not the Dry Vermouth which is mixed with gin in a Martini). Saying “Gin and It” today is considered culturally offensive, so if you want to try it, you should ask your bartender for a “sweet martini.”
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!