Gothic horror with a strong element of Grand Guignol is provided by the National Theatre with Anthony Neilson's production of The Tell-Tale Heart (Dorfman Theatre), a contemporary re-imagining of Edgar Allan Poe's classic 1843 short story about a haunted conscience.
A young playwright, Celeste, rents an attic in Brighton, hoping it will break the writer's block that's preventing her from following up her wildly successful debut. Whilst there, she forms a relationship with her landlady, Nora, a lonely young woman with a life altering eye condition. But pressure mounts on the writer and her relationship with the landlady becomes ever-more suffocating.
Neilson here seizes on the image of the eye and the idea of being seen – the landlady sports a huge bulbous eyeball like a boiled egg. The play itself is a combination of menace and mirth but as in the Poe original, there is no sense of motive of psychological analysis. Nevertheless the broad strokes of Poe's tale remain intact with blood, gore, bed-rattling and eye-splattering. I feel, though, that if the humour that runs right through the play, veering from the broad to the macabre, had been toned down and the darker elements played up, it would have been a much better production. That said, though, there are some truly chilling moments such as when the eye, which is so important to the horror, is ripped to shreds as it is burst with a blade, and the image of the eye dangling ominously above the stage which had me wincing in my seat.
Designer Francis O'Connor has created a suitably skewed seaside artist's studio complete with three-bar fire and a vast skylight that reflects the room below.
Tamara Lawrance gives a sterling performance as Celeste, allowing her inner demons to strain behind every laid-back, liberal sentence, and her transformation from assured playwright to quivering mess couldn't be more believable, and she is central to keeping the play grounded in some sense of reality. Imogen Doel, meanwhile, convinces as the earnest young landlady, of slightly creepy naivety, and is suitably unsettling at conveying Nora's gauche intensity. David Carlyle, though, is a little too mincing as the music-loving detective who arrives in the full glare of the theatre's house lights to unpick Celeste's story.
Despite its flaws, this is certainly a tale worth telling.
The Tell-Tale Heart
Runs until Saturday 9 January 2019 at the Dorfman Theatre.
Box office: 020 7452 3000Last modified: April 6, 2021