Necessary theatre: a city on trial

Noel Purdon

The Project

Brink’s latest work, The Rope Project, had the air of a trial—exemplified in the shape of its staging and exposition. Before an audience of representatives of the city-state of Adelaide, the players put their case. It was a case not only for the right to continue their project with the approval and advice of the demos, but a presentation of the nature of power and crime in the audience’s own picket-fenced backyard. The Rope Project was also a trial in the sense of being a try-out: the first public showing of several month’s work.

Director Sam Haren took the floor as orator, giving his introduction and interpretation. His subject was the representation of deviance on stage and film. His particular topos linked 3 sequences of multiple murders that occurred in Adelaide: the 7 girls at Truro in the 70s, the 5 boys in the parklands and beyond, and the gruesome discoveries still emerging from the Snowtown bank vault. They were preceded by the murder of Dr George Duncan in the River Torrens by 3 police officers, and connected by the figure of Bevan Von Einem as potential victim and witness, and subsequently killer.

The company, including designer Mary Moore, video and sound artists Sophie Hyde, Bryan Mason, Andrew Russ and Andrew Howard then demonstrated the exhibits and forensic events presented by the actors. The audience responded with their doubts, sarcasm, fears, contradictions and encouragement. It was an admirable vindication of the value of live theatre.

The Film

Brink’s project takes its title from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, itself adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s 1924 London stage play. Hitchcock changed the original characters—Oxford undergraduates and their professor—into 2 Manhattan penthouse peacocks, Phillip and Brandon (coded as homosexual by Hitchcock’s elegant direction of Farley Granger and the mise-en-scène of the apartment), and their mentor Rupert (James Stewart). They have just strangled their friend David in an acte gratuit, and are about to tease their guests and us by throwing a party. Hitchcock wanted to increase the tension by giving the Stewart role to the openly bisexual Cary Grant and Brandon to another gay actor, Montgomery Clift, who backed off. Even in Hamilton’s play, much of the public fascination was with the reverberations of the real Leopold/Loeb affair. Though Hamilton denied it, there were certainly striking similarities between his Nietzschean thrill-killers and the wealthy Chicago students who murdered a 14-year old boy. Hitchcock, on the other hand, certainly knew the connection. Several other powerful films have been made on the subject, notably Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959). From prison, the convicted Nathan Leopold threatened to sue at the implication of a homosexual motive for the murder. Loeb was himself murdered in 1936. But it’s Hitchcock’s Rope that remains the archetypal dramatisation, not least because of its bold experiment with real time and a single location. In his version, with the camera changing rolls behind moveable furniture and apparently filming in one continuous take, the insolent killers serve their guests dinner on a chest containing the body.


It was Salman Rushdie, an Adelaide Festival guest, who first made global, in an article (published in 1984), the creepy feeling he experienced behind the facade of colonial buildings and bluestone suburbs in this Athens of the South. But it was the British tabloids’ characterisation of the city as the murder capital of the world that really had backpackers looking over their shoulders and Old Adelaide Families snuffling in their shiraz. Firstly, is it true? No, in both number or proportion it is ridiculous in comparison with cities such as Washington or Sao Paolo. But what about ‘weird’ murders? Brink’s audience was quick to respond: “Aren’t all murders weird?” No, it appeared, some were weirder than others. Because they were serial, for instance. Or, in this city at least, so many could be linked to homosexuality. But wasn’t that merely media sensationalism? In a place where the next most notable event is Woomera and the newspapers are the worst outside Rangoon, wouldn’t grisly horror stories about perverts make more people snap up the front page? Yes, but even if it’s only a myth, doesn’t that in itself say something about the city? Some questioners, like Myk Mykyta, father of one of the victims, wondered about the purpose of dragging it all up again—for the sake of mere sensationalism.

Lawyers in the audience pointed out the specious nature of the revised statements from murderers still in prison. Should they be countenanced? No, this was not Brink’s intention. But the whole creation of the “Family” [a term coined by Adelaide reporters for the Parklands murderers] served the interesting function of hinting that Adelaide’s rulers, judges, highest functionaries and identities were themselves a gang of secret killers. It’s this, I think, that the company must explore further. Don Dunstan created an Athens of the South all right. But had anyone considered what Periclean Athens was actually like? Even under reformed legislation, half its male population, including Sophocles, Aristophanes and most of its poets would be considered paedophiles. Had a member of the “Family”, perhaps in some hidden Chair of Classics, actually read The Greek Anthology [a famous collection of Hellenic poetry, including inter-male love poems, many of them pederastic]? The confusion surrounding the entire notion of history and deviance was enough to bring down Dunstan himself; even in a city where he was responsible for the decriminalisation of an act for which he was fatally vilified.

Brink’s situating of the origins of both myth and reality in the still reactionary media of the 3 periods is an act of tightrope walking. The choice of director or dramaturg is crucial. The company also needs to understand more clearly the language of cinema, particularly given the fact that Hitchcock is complicit with his killers, and must evolve a more sophisticated apparatus of switch-on/off points for actor, image and text. The company was trying a technique in which character and text were signified by switching on or off (a) an image, video morph or projection from which the actor emerged or disappeared, and (b) an accent. In this case all the actors used Jimmy Stewart’s voice to indicate the fictive murder of the film and their own voices to read various texts and newspapers describing the real murders in Adelaide. The audience suggested the technique be clarified. But even at this stage what we saw was a courageous and necessary piece of action.

The Rope Project, Brink Company, Inspace program, The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Feb 8.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 46

© Noel Purdon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003