The Tell-Tale Heart at the National Theatre
Something about Anthony Neilson’s freaky regurgitation of The Tell-Tale Heart makes it a spiritual sibling to Anne Washburn’s playful, archly meta-take on The Twilight Zone from this time last year. That’s both a compliment and a warning. For while the adaptation will delight those who want their Christmas treats winkingly macabre, pinging back and forth on the schlock-to-scare metre, some people are going to hate it.
Just as Washburn approached the CBS cult classic with a level of sceptical, mocking – but very real – respect, Neilson keeps the broad strokes of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story intact. Or rather, not so much intact, but blown up to nuance-shattering, gloriously cartoonish proportions. Fleeing London for the south coast, an award-rejecting writer (Tamara Lawrance) finds herself forming a curious bond with her naive, but surprisingly frank, Landlady (Imogen Doel). And then… well, let’s just say their relationship takes a grisly turn (or five).
Much of the opening half is, to be honest, a bit slow. It does a decent job of building the kooky tone; Doel and Lawrance have an amusing chemistry, in no small part thanks to the former’s consistently chipper delivery of a grim family history; and the lights-up shock of the writer being investigated by David Carlyle’s detective works nicely the first time around. But it isn’t until the reveals start to arrive just before the break that the play really gets going. The second act is even better, crucially shifting from “what’s going to happen?” to “what on earth is happening?”
Huge credit has to go to the tricked-out set, from Francis O’Connor’s hilariously big take on the creepy gothic attic window to Nigel Edwards’s tone-setting lighting and Nick Powell’s jump-inducing soundtrack. Blood, gore, bed-rattling, egg-splattering. It’s like being in a haunted house that you know is kind of dumb, but still manages to scare you anyway.
Though Neilson uses his Tell-Tale to take plenty of potshots at the theatre industry, including the National and Marianne Elliott’s Company, it is artists themselves that seem to come in for the most consistent kicking. Hypocritical, not as liberal and understanding and unshockable as they think, devious, arrogant, afraid to be truly seen. That the artist in question is a black woman written by a white man doesn’t quite work; it does, however, perhaps fit with the bizarre evening the playwright has produced.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
The Tell-Tale Heart is at the National Theatre from 5th December until 9th January 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.