HALFWAY through her MA in theatre studies, Katie Leckey is directing York company Griffonage Theatre in their Theatre@41 debut in Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Rope from Wednesday to Saturday.
Built around an invitation to a dinner party like no other, against the backdrop of Britain’s flirtation with fascism, this 1929 whodunit states exactly who did it, but the mystery is: will they be caught? Cue a soiree full of eccentric characters, ticking clocks and hushed arguments.
Leckey’s cast comprises predominantly actors aged 21 or 22: Nick Clark as Wyndham Branson; Will Obson as Charles Granillo; Jack Mackay as Rupert Cadell; Carly Bednar as Leila Arden; Peter Hopwood as Kenneth Raglan and Molly Raine as Sabot.
They will be joined by two older actors, Liam Godrey as Sir Johnstone Kentley and Frankie Hayes as Mrs Debenham. Alicia Oldsbury is the set designer; Grace Trapps, the costumier; Margaux Campbell, the fight choreographer.
“We are so excited to have audiences begin to see this show!” says Katie. “It’s been something of a passion project for me and the entire process has been so rewarding already.”
Here, CharlesHutchPress puts questions to director Katie Leckey on staging Rope, the rise of Griffonage Theatre and her plans for the year ahead.
When and where did you form Griffonage Theatre?
“We were formed about a year ago after a University of York Shakespeare Society production of Julius Caesar that I directed and in which my fellow co-artistic director, Jack Mackay, played Caesar.
“We realised that we had very similar creative styles and overlapping interests during that rehearsal process and this sparked a discussion about how we could branch out of university and into the York theatre scene.
“We were keen to put on plays that are underperformed (like Rope) or a little bit strange, silly or macabre! York is the perfect place to do this as there’s such a wealth of storytelling potential and inspiration everywhere!
“Jack and I like to (half) joke that we would get nothing done without our amazing executive producer, Anna Njoroge, who is basically a wizard at organisation and the main reason our ideas aren’t sitting dormant in our heads!”
How is the University of York involved?
“Like I say, Griffonage wouldn’t have been born had it not been for the university’s performance societies and the experience that we got from being involved in those. Jack is now chair of the Shakespeare Society, and I learnt a lot from directing and performing with and eventually being the chair of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, especially about adapting older texts for audiences today in an accessible way – something that is a real goal of our company.
“Jack is studying English Literature at the uni, and I just finished the same degree for my undergraduate studies, so we’re also very keen to explore new writing and ways of facilitating that being put on in the city, alongside putting on adaptations of more well-established playwrights.”
What is your specialist focus in your MA in theatre studies?
“I’m halfway through my MA in theatre-making and it’s just amazing! I’m very interested in physical theatre and clowning in my individual practice as a performer. As a director, though, I find the juiciest plays are the ones that have darker themes that I can present through the guise of light-heartedness.
“I think the best plays are ones that aren’t easily labelled as one thing or another, which is why I’m drawn to surrealist and absurdist themes and imagery as well. The MA has equipped me so far with lots of practical skills in running rehearsals, workshops and (perhaps most importantly) working with others in an ensemble to create interesting and often experimental art.”
What first brought you to York?
“I’m originally from Northern Ireland – from the rural town of Ballyclare about 20 minutes away from Belfast – and came over here to study for my undergrad degree – I liked it so much that I’ve decided to stay! It’s just the most gorgeous, historic place and I love the fact that everyone knows everyone somehow or other! Also being able to access so much theatre and arts on my doorstep here was definitely a draw as well.
Where did you take your first steps in theatre?
“I was so privileged to have a great drama teacher at my secondary school, who put on a musical in our assembly hall every year! My first production was Annie when I was around 13 or so, and I just remember growing in confidence after each rehearsal and the feeling of becoming an entirely different person for a few hours!
“As time went on, I had singing lessons and just kept acting in anything I could on the side of everything else. Obviously, I enjoy the bigger picture of storytelling, because I decided to do an English Lit degree, but it was only when I was given the chance to direct Patience as part of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in my second year of Uni (after a bit of a hiatus from all things theatre during Covid) that all the stars aligned for me.
“I realised that directing was a way of combining all my passions and interests into one activity! And I’ve been absolutely determined tm make, and be in, as much theatre as I can ever since!”
Hence the rise of Griffonage Theatre. Why choose that name?
“If you ask the dictionary, Griffonage means ‘careless handwriting: a crude or illegible scrawl’. Jack and I felt like the word really summed up our creative process – something that’s a little careless, crude (mostly from my end) or even illegible is usually the spark for our ideas, and we are so passionate about how we turn these scrawls into something palpable for audiences to enjoy!
“We also liked how it has connotations with the mythical beast the Griffin, as we’re constantly in awe of things that are inexplicable, fantastical and ancient.”
What is Griffonage Theatre’s mission statement?
“We are a team of York-based storytellers who leap at the opportunity to shock and delight. We revel in the grotesque, in the weaving of new worlds, and in sharing the beauty and terror of humanity’s strangest stories.
“Our ambition is to reveal the dark hearts of stories across a wide range of genres: to galvanise narratives that have been lost and to foster the creation of exciting, original work.”
What has the company done so far?
“We had a sold-out site-specific show, Poe In The Pitch Black, at the Perky Peacock café [in the mediaeval, wood-beamed Barker Tower on North Street]. We adapted three of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and told them in the dark, using age-old practical theatrical techniques to spook our audiences!
“We crammed them in! We were able to get 20 spectators in, along with five actors. It was definitely a squeeze in the lower room!
“A particular highlight of the show was the creation of a puppet for the character of the old man in the Tell Tale Heart (performed by Will Osbon, who is returning to play Charles Granillo in Rope), which we were told sufficiently creeped out a lot of our audience!”
How did the chance to perform at Theatre@41 emerge?
“I had the joy of performing in York Settlement Community Players’ Government Inspector last October and got to know the brilliant Alan Park [Theatre@41’s chair], as he was directing the show!
“I approached him with the idea of putting a play on at the theatre and was completely shocked that he didn’t shrug me off right away; in fact he was keen that we got everything sorted as soon as possible!
“It’s truly a privilege to be able to put our show on at all, never mind in a space at the heart of the community in York! It’s just so special!”
What attracted you to Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play Rope?
“It’s just genius. Its readability was the first thing that struck me – the stage directions are a hoot! I really recommend for people to read the play, as well as watching it, as it really is fantastic. Hamilton’s grasp of character is phenomenal.
“The play is at once funny and dark, light but intense, deeply philosophical yet entirely playful. I was also fascinated by the fact that it was so heavily concerned with the rise of British fascism pre-World War Two. It’s such a poignant meditation on war, justice, self-awareness and the value of all human life.
“It’s also genuinely hilarious and includes a lot of delightful witticisms and snarky comments. The fact that it is based on a real murder case also intrigued me greatly. With the growing popularity of ‘true crime’ as a genre, it’s utterly fascinating to see a play that attempts to directly confront its viewers with their own desire to witness violence and its consequences.
“It’s very interesting from a queer perspective as well. Without spoiling too much, I would recommend contemplating what the overt and implied relationships between the characters say about the implications of the story itself.
What does Rope say to a modern audience?
“Aside from a few 1920s slang terms, Rope is inherently modern in its sensibilities, despite the fact it has nearly been 100 years since its first performance. (Indeed, this isn’t surprising considering Hamilton coined the thoroughly modern word ‘gaslight’).
“This is why we’ve chosen to make the set look like it hasn’t been moved for 100 years – as something of a time capsule, but also a direct reflection of today. The play acts as a warning for what can happen if you let insidious beliefs and attitudes fester, but beyond this it asks the audience to evaluate themselves what justice looks like, and if it is attainable or desirable at all.
“Furthermore, it delights in the small things: dancing, eating, drinking and socialising – reminding audiences that while they should be alert to little cruelties and genuine evils alike, there is still some good in most people, and this can be seen in the most unlikely of circumstances, including an outré dinner party.”
Have you seen Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking single-take 1948 film version, shot with the camera kept in continuous motion?
“I love this question! Yes! I actually watched it as soon as I finished reading theplay for the first time! I remember turning to Jack in utter amazement at somemoments (mostly when Jimmy Stewart did anything as Rupert – his performance is phenomenal!) and in complete horror at the extraordinarycensorship that the film was subject to!
“The deviation from Hamilton’s originalis masterful in a way only Hitchcock is, and the choice to set it in post-WW2America is also a stroke of total genius, but it does, at least in my opinionremove some of the most unique and interesting qualities of the original.”
When did you last attend a dinner party?
“For my friend Grace’s birthday a few months ago. It was so much fun, we dressed up in formal clothes and had a little boogie afterwards as well!”
Who would be your ideal guests at a dinner party and why?
“This is so tough! I would have to say Oscar Wilde as he was the subject of my dissertation at undergrad and I would honestly love to be the butt of some of his quips. My fiancé Peter Hopwood (who plays Raglan in the show!) because I feel like I always need a wingman to back me up in dinner party-discussion and he certainly knows me best!
I would also love Mary Wollstonecraft [18th century British writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights] to be there just because I feel like she would be so interesting to chat with about philosophy and womanhood.
“I would invite Dolly Parton because she’s just the greatest and my complete idol. I would bring Jack [co-artistic director Jack Mackay] as a scribe, so I could remember what we chatted about. Finally, I think I would invite Samuel Beckett, just to ask him what on earth was he thinking when he wrote his televised play Quad.”
What makes a good dinner party?
“A good host. Unfortunately for the characters in Rope…
“Also some gentle jazz music in the background is a must; it just feels too awkward otherwise!”
You participated in York Theatre Royal’s community play, Sovereign, at King’s Manor last summer. In a cast of thousands (!), who did you play?
“I played Jennet Marlin (spoiler alert: she was a baddie!) – and what a great time I had. Playing her was a little bit out of my comfort zone but I grew to love her and her very sour face! The people I met as part of it was definitely the highlight. I also LOVED the costume; it made me feel like a real princess – and as a person who usually plays fools this was a unique occasion!”
What comes next for you and Griffonage Theatre?
“Oh, now that would be telling… but since you’ve pulled my leg – personally I’m going to finish my masters in September and start looking for jobs in the industry and I’m also hoping to get married in the winter!
“Griffonage are making our return to Theatre@41 in July this year, and we can’t WAIT to reveal what we’re up to!”
Griffonage Theatre in Rope, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, February 21 to 24, 7.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.