Vertigo Theatre dangles Rope

Reinvestigating a chilling crime of the (last) century

Even by today’s standards the “Leopold and Loeb” case is chilling — in 1924 it shocked and absorbed the public going on to become a morbid inspiration for theatre film and television productions.

Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb a pair of intelligent and wealthy University of Chicago students inspired by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “Superman” sought to commit the perfect crime: kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Robert Franks son of a Chicago millionaire. After murdering the boy and destroying what they thought was all of the evidence they demanded ransom from his family. However Franks’ body was soon discovered and their murderous deed uncovered. (Defended by famed lawyer Clarence Darrow the pair avoided the death penalty and were sentenced to life in prison.)

British playwright Patrick Hamilton drew upon this case when he penned Rope in 1929 (Alfred Hitchcock made it into a 1948 film starring Jimmy Stewart) although he switched the setting to England and cast the two murderers — as well as the victim — as Oxford University students.

Blair Williams who directs Vertigo Theatre’s new adaptation says he has been interested in the play for a long time.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the English culture Hamilton sets it in — that sense of amorality; what privilege does to people…. Privilege can breed a sense of untouchability — freedom from consequence” Williams says.

The Leopold and Loeb-inspired characters Wydham Brandon (Stafford Perry) and Charles Granillo (Scott Shpeley) are “about as privileged as they come” according to Perry.

“Brandon has grown up with wealth and every possible advantage. He has personal charm and can win people over. He is extremely smart to the point where he thinks he’s smarter than most people” Perry says of his character adding that he is still trying to wrap his head around how and why someone who seemingly has everything would throw it all away on such a crime.

“When you’ve been able to do everything at will it becomes a sort of God-complex. It’s hard to get new excitement when there have been no boundaries or obstacles in your way. Determining life and death becomes the next challenge” he says.

The play opens with Brandon and Granillo placing the body of their victim in a chest the action unfolding in real time as the deceased’s family and friends come for dinner in the same room in which the body is concealed — the murderous hosts even serving drinks off the makeshift coffin.

One of their guests is an older student Rupert Cadell (David Leyshon) whom Brandon and Granillo look up to — so much so that they almost want him to bear witness to their deed. Cadell eventually unravels the murderers’ carefully concealed secret.

“Theirs [Brandon’s and Granillo’s] is an act free of motivation. It’s a pure simple action — a sublime experience that’s almost erotic in nature” explains Williams.

“It’s almost an intellectual challenge for them…. How their lives have more value than someone else’s” adds Perry.

Williams says there is also the suggestion of a gay relationship between Brandon and Granillo but given the year Hamilton wrote Rope he wasn’t able to make overt references to it. (Leopold and Loeb were also believed to be lovers.)

While audiences never meet the victim they get to know him through his family and friends; through observing the impact of the victim’s death on those around him the play makes the case for the value of a human life.

“The play is a great cry for recognition of the divine spark within each of us” says Williams.

Yet despite the heinous crime the characters commit Williams says “We shouldn’t ever revel in the punishment for a crime someone has committed.

“Instead we feel for someone who can so miss the point of living…. The perpetrators are so disconnected they’ve lost the ability to feel for a fellow human. That’s the tragedy” he says.