Saturday, January 16, 2010

Old Rope, new life

Bertie Carvel in Rope, at the Almeida, might be my favourite performance on the London stage since Bill Irwin in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or at least Douglas Hodge in the Menier's Cage aux Folles. He's that good. To those who only know Patrick Hamilton's soiree-murder nailbiter from the Hitchcock movie, this is the Jimmy Stewart role -- but who knew Rupert Cadell could be such a peach of a part for a young actor? (He's 33.) The last to arrive on stage, he makes his entrance count, hobbling in with a gilded cane, an expression of distaste at the octagonal chest serving as a canape table centre stage, and a hissily accented drawl -- part Gordon Kaye, part Anton Walbrook -- which he sustains quite immaculately for the next hour and a half. When he turns his withering sarcasm on each of the party guests in turn -- they include the droll Henry Lloyd-Hughes as a bluff, hearty athletics champ, and the priceless Phoebe Waller-Bridge, turning the excitable flapper Leila into the very model of a gangly Max Beerbohm caricature -- it's a controlled torrent of contemptuous aestheticism. And there's a sadness to him: the war wound causing that limp has curdled his worldview into bitter desolation. His only comfort is in catching others out, which is to say smelling an instant rat at the whole complexion of the evening.

Roger Michell's production isn't perfect. The leads have their individual moments: Blake Ritson's Brandon, a brittle charmer with a dead soul, is an energetically conceited MC, and Alex Waldmann plays Granillo as a small, querulous schoolboy -- an also-ran. In tandem, though, the sense of duet is missing: they don't communicate enough eye-flashing anxiety across the stage, and Waldmann goes OTT at least twice with the screeching hysteria, as Michell allows the tone of the piece to tip over too precipitously into macabre farce. Their fate is never felt to matter, because they are second-class citizens, particularly under the shriveling gaze of Carvel's Rupert, who lurks by the fireplace watching their whole charade play out, and prodding it occasionally with his line of suspicious questioning. The last scenes are fascinating, because Michell and Carvel have built enough ambiguity into the character that you forget whether he's going to let them off the hook or not. We hold our breath while morality and cold logic conduct a duel in his head. The tortured physicality that Carvel brings to his whole performance -- the sheer effort it takes him to cross his legs, his brusque, impatient but clomping progress across the room -- pay off beautifully when he gets his tiny glimpse at what's in the chest, and just stands there. He'd already guessed, but the full measure of what they've done stops him in his tracks. Brandon and Granillo may have lifted the corpse inside, but it's Rupert's job -- and Carvel's job, pulled off just tremendously -- to weigh it.

1 comment:

Guy said...

How dedicated of you to write it up so quickly! If this is indeed the start of more theatre-focused musings in the blog, I'm more than happy with that. You nail so precisely what the leads are missing, but Carvel really was a treat, wasn't he?

And I'm still chuckling at the memory of Leila's teetering, incomplete laughs, punctuating nearly every sentence from her -- my life is that much brighter for having met that little performance.

Happy birthday.