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FringeReview UK 2018

The Tell-Tale Heart

National Theatre, London

Genre: Adaptation, Dark Comedy, Drama, Magical Realism, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Dorfman


Low Down

Anthony Neilson directs his adaptation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart at the National’s Dorfman. Francis O’Connor’s top flat lit by Nigel Edwards features a huge cloud-scudded skylight window. Andrzej Goulding’s video design comes into its own in the second act and Nick Powell’s unearthly sound with it. Till January 9th 2019.



There’s a deal of spook around this Christmas, even more than usual. So apart from the usual Christmas Carol, there’s a chilling Macbeth and Doctor Faustus at the Wanamaker, a particularly fine Rocky Horror Show tour as contrast; and Anthony Neilson’s adaptation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart at the National’s Dorfman, which he also directs. Didn’t see that coming!


Nor the way Neilson’s disrupted his normal narrative disruption and for a long time plays it straight. It’s only after the interval that hallucinatory versions multiply; and when the last third plunges us elsewhere you realize how this works for Neilson. It’s concise, clear, detailed and yet brilliantly sucker-punched down to the last heartbeat.


There’s a satisfying finish Neilson tends to eschew elsewhere in his famous last-minute adjustments: a storytelling contained in crystalline tableaux. If you look down as red light plays on you, you might feel it’s not just the National’s carpet but Poe’s floorboards being pulled from under your feet.


Tamara Lawrence’s Writer comes on to accept then decline a first playwright award, with a fine riff on artists being failed sports people and ‘art is a celebration of failure’. Even Judi Dench attacks her for it. She then attempts to fulfil her National commission by fleeing to a Brighton attic flat where her kooky, needy eye-patched young landlady (Imogen Doel) attempts to befriend her. As time goes on you wonder if the playwright’s name – Celeste Allen – or another name the Detective (David Carlyle) addresses her by, Camille, is the real one. Norah the landlady seems the only moniker we can rely on, with an extraordinary Irish family. But Allen’s still blocked.


Francis O’Connor’s marvellous top flat set lit by Nigel Edwards features a huge cloud-scudded skylight window, which later on shows days spinning by and ominous moons rising like H. G. Wells’ Time Traveller. It’s richer as it rolls on – Andrzej Goulding’s video design comes nightmarishly into its own in the second act and Nick Powell’s unearthly sound with it.


Stage left there’s a diaphanous toilet area that’s see-through on occasion. Downstage from that an ancient typewriter: think The Shining. Though here words get projected on the wallpaper. Right there’s green shutters and steep stairs down. A large old bed centres everything. Naturalistic. Till – wonderfully – it isn’t. There’s smoke-puffs, a mass of dry ice drifting over the audience, sparks and Edwards’ superb schlock lighting.


If Allen with writer’s block and oppressed by her National commission (with increasingly disturbed voicemail from one Barnaby) seems a good in-joke, we might find it’s on us. Carlyle’s detective comes in two guises, a friendly singing detective to whom at some point Allen tells everything but who doesn’t listen. And a close-shaved version who’s persecuting her days after that landlady’s disappeared.


The cast are uniformly excellent. Lawrence is sovereign as Camille/Celeste Allen, both laid-back and panicky, apparently liberal yet full of vicious undercurrents. Doel’s register of innocence as Norah becomes more delicious as it gets more deadpan: she’s paradoxically the most rounded character. Carlyle relishes his cheerful singing detective and even more his ferocious soul-saving Scottish avatar.


The core tale’s plain enough. Allen – let’s call her that – is at first sorry for, even mildly attracted to, the landlady. There’s pizza and a pizza cutter, Norah taking up Laurie her suicide brother’s portrait-painting as she paints Allen. Allen can’t get inspired; but as Norah points out she’s inspired her. Perhaps, Norah hopes, she can inspire Allen. Ah.


A male imagining of female psychic space can become intrusive – dramatist Lucy Kirkwood’s timely admonitions don’t entirely evaporate here. Aaprt from toilet jokes, there’s talk of jilling off together to porn, though Allen draws back from ‘cunnilingus and cocaine’ but wants Norah to take off that eye-patch, and love herself. ‘I see a smart, beautiful damaged woman’ says complacently liberal Allen. Finally Norah does remove it; Allen’s horrified by a large staring protuberant thing. She can’t stand eggs. And becomes spectacularly murderous.


If you know the Poe story you’ll know what happens. An obsessive hearing of a heart under the floorboards, a confession. Since we shift chronologically there’s moments when Norah’s back, Allen’s dreamt it all; then weirder moments when Carlyle doubling as the hanged brother smiles horribly alongside her as Norah suggests suicide as a way of joining them forever. She even reminds Allen that she’s foolishly wiped all Norah’s fingerprints off Norah’s computer keyboard with her own: suspicious. Better fetch Norah’s hands out and use them to re-apply the right fingerprints. Good move, kind ghost.


Carlyle otherwise sashays between affable wannabe actor singing bits of Company excruciatingly (he doesn’t think much of Marianne Elliott’s production), to the Calvinist-style version who wants Allen to confess and save herself. Meanwhile more terrifying hallucinations occur.


There’s a sudden further level, we’re within the writer’s-block unblocked play; and Neilson’s ingenious reveal slots most things in place. As a revivifying of a straightforward tale this is mostly superb too. I’m not entirely convinced – yet – by the end, but am willing to be. There’s an uneasy undertow of male imposition, but for the most part this piece, as usual not put together till the last moment, gels in a way that for once suggests it might be published and revived.


Neilson’s shifted the moral gravity so much that it’s moonwalking and never quite sure where to come down. It’s no longer leaded with Poe’s moral universe – or replaced by another. But as an electric shock to schlock gothic, theatre doesn’t come much better than this.