Direction : Vikash Khurana
Cast : Nandan Majumdar, Varun Vij, Vikash Khurana, Anamika Sawarkar, Anuj Hamilton & Anurag Kulkarni

ROPE Play Review

Vikram Phukan

 ROPE Review

As part of the ongoing NCPA Centrestage festival, Nagpur's Stagecraft Theatre mounted a production of ROPE, based on the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, most famous in its 1948 film adaptation directed by Alfred Hitchcock. That film uniquely brought the stage experience to cinema -shot in real time and consisting entirely of long shots - while transposing the action from London to New York. This version, with similar aplomb, shifts base to salubrious Pune, with the throwaway references to local sights and sounds ringing true and the tender ironies associated with familiar turf hitting home precisely. The Indian English dialect in use and the general mien of the performers make the university milieu all the more believable, with none of the schizophrenia that routinely afflicts actors in Indian adaptations of western plays. The play also banishes any reliance on bombast, as refreshingly unaffected actors settle into the easy grammar of what slowly reveals itself to be a perfectly agreeable enterprise.

The on-stage action hinges on the inopportune (or perhaps, the opposite) death by strangulation of a college student. His body is crammed into a trunk, which is then set up as a dining table on which to serve up a valedictory meal (appropriately to the setting - pizza and beer) to a bunch of 'interested parties' (mostly friends and family of the departed). The swaggering killers (played by Nandan Majumdar and Varun Vij) appear to revel at pulling off the 'perfect' crime, although as the play opens to the tortured wail of a young man in death throes and their dizzy post-crime deliberations, the feat feels far from ingenious. Mr Majumdar and Mr Vij, who look decidedly more sinister in the play's publicity material, are thankfully not required to lend virtuosity to the fine art of murder (or simulation thereof) as the actual throttling takes place off-stage.

Mr Majumdar's deadpan composure and Mr Vij's frenzied vacillating create an interesting contrast, but as the double-act at the core of the play, the actors perhaps need to be better foils for each other, even as they are otherwise equal to the task of creating suitably distinctive personas. There is no indication of the deep bond that would make them such impassioned partners-in-crime. The play was based on real-life killers, Leopold and Loeb, who were lovers, and the film is chock-full with homoerotic subtext, to which director Vikash Khurana affords only a cursory nod, perhaps to tread politically correct middle ground in keeping with the play's expected viewership. The absence of subtext and the unimaginative lighting whittles out some of the original's edge; the forbidding tenor of an intended thriller supplanted with one of casual delight or light amusement. The guessing game that ensues is not set up by masterfully created suspense but by the 'all will be revealed' ken of a standard issue whodunit. This lack of atmosphere is certainly a loss for a production that is otherwise not lacking in ambition or talent.

In the film, Hitchcock makes his signature cameo in the opening scene as a walker on a Manhattan street, and again later, intriguingly, as a red neon sign! Fortunately Mr Khurana doesn't restrict himself merely to a walk-on part. Rather, he is a wily scene-stealer whose alacrity of performance sometimes pulls the rug from under the best moments of other actors. As Riaz Khan, a university professor who makes a virtue of reading between the lines, Mr Khurana positions himself as a kind of omniscient cipher for the script's intellectual predilections. Khan's rapid imbibing ('whisky, two fingers, no ice') leads not to an indisposed inebriation (as it does for Mr Vij's character) but to a sober keenness that keeps him doggedly on the scent of solving the play's central conundrum. The conceit of murder justified on the grounds of obscure principle (credited to Nietzsche in the play's blurb, indicating his treatise, Ubermensch, that alluded to a privileged class of aristocrats who made and lived by their own moral rules) remains just that. In the end, Khan pulls out the card of human compassion that must compulsorily override the cavalier notions put forward by the murderous duo, but it is tendered too feebly to have any impact whatsoever. It doesn't really matter, because ROPE isn't really bothered with questions of philosophy - those concerns are more likely plot drivers than pointers to introspection - and certainly this play hits the bull's eye with regards to what it seeks to achieve, which is to lull its audience into a comfortable viewing of decidedly bourgeois urban theatre done rather well.

*Vikram Phukan runs Stage Impressions, a theatre appreciation website.

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