Non-Brits find it hard to believe, but in addition to the tree, holly, mistletoe, turkey, plum pudding, watching the Queen’s speech and drinking far too much, ghost stories are a part of (at least) English Christmas traditions, as much as the pantomime. If this startles you, just think of the spectres in Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol, which had plenty of antecedents in Gothic literature. Nowadays, however, British Christmas entertainment revolves around the telly – though the more energetic also visit the cinema. Recent Christmas films hark back to the ghost story tradition, though they tend to lean towards the horror or Gothic categories of the genre. (There was an hour-long disquisition on Christmas films only last night by Mark Kermode on BBC4, which is still available on BBC I-Player.)
The theatre, I think (but am not certain) has been exempt from this trend. Most theatre-goers at this time of year favour the pantomime, or plays suitable for children, such as the NT’s Wind in the Willows or Treasure Island. This Christmas, however, in the NT’s renamed Dorfman Theatre, there is a new play by Anthony Neilson, with enough Kensington Gore (stage blood), to qualify as an item for the Knowledge (the compulsory examination taken by London black cab drivers).
The Tell-Tale Heart, based on the (very) short story by Edgar Allan Poe, is not one for the kids, I’d think. Mind you, I took one of mine, but she’s a thirty-something, so it probably doesn’t count; and she was not as enthusiastic as I was about the repeated coups de théâtre, some of which were the sort of frightening that makes you laugh nervously in self-defence. This is the play that keeps giving – it certainly does not end when the audience thinks it’s all over.
I’ve been following the playwright since I wrote a profile of a young Neilson for the Wall Street Journal many, many years ago. His method of working entails also directing, as he does here, for he devises and refines the script during rehearsals; meaning that the actors play an unusual double role, contributing to the script as well as performing it. There is such a lot of last-minute revision that the text is not yet in print (which limits my reviewing powers, as I don’t have shorthand – and don’t take notes, as I can’t read my own writing even if done in daylight).
I think Neilson’s mode of working must be the reason the three actors in this piece are so very good (a judgment shared by all my colleagues whose reviews have so far appeared) – they own bits of the play.
The 1843 Poe story (there’s a coincidence!) is the distressing tale of the nervous, perhaps mad, first-person narrator, who, repulsed by his landlord’s “eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it” determines to kill him, though “I loved the old man.” The deed done, the body is dismembered and hidden under the floor-boards of the lodger’s room. There he is visited by the police, who “were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was thoroughly at ease.” His complacence is shattered, however, by an incessant noise, the beating of the victim’s “hideous heart” from under the floor; and he confesses to the three investigating policemen, who apparently could not hear the noise. He raves that it wasn’t possible they hadn’t heard, that their pleasant chat and smiles “were making a mockery of my horror!…I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!” So he directs them to the loose floorboards, and seals his now desired doom.
Neilson hews closely to the original, using actors – though the number of characters they depict is (purposely) unclear. The play is held together by “The Writer,” played by Tamara Lawrance; she is “Celeste,” a blocked playwright, who has refused a Tony-ish award for her first play on ideological grounds. This occasions the play’s best line, “Judi Dench called me a hypocrite” (for refusing the prize), with its Poe-ish reverberations. But her coke-snorting, vodka-swigging, bisexual character is sometimes called “Camille” – implying – what? – a split personality? Or that she, Celeste, is acting in a drama in which she is Camille? Though I sometimes felt that she (and the two other actors) could have projected their voices more strongly (and we were in row H), Ms Lawrance’s body-language and large repertory of facial expressions were superb; and big congratulations to the NT for casting a black woman in a role for which this is utterly irrelevant.
As the “The Landlady,” Imogen Doel, called “Nora,” is the almost willing victim, disfigured at birth, who wears a Phantom-of-the-Opera mask to conceal it, and has fallen in love with her lodger. The most puzzling cast member is “The Detective,” played (mostly) charmingly by David Carlyle, with a Scottish accent that is sometimes difficult for a non-Scot to get your ear around. Though dressed identically, he is sometimes a gruff, forty-something cop, and sometimes a younger policeman: a camp, flouncing, wannabee singer in musicals (for which he demonstrates at length his tuneless lack of aptitude).
He is perhaps two characters – or maybe the gay detective is Celeste/Camille’s fantasy? In any case there are actors in this drama who are not in the cast – the designer, Francis O’Connor, whose studio/bedsit set, with its giant, storey-high, north-facing window, contains not much more than a bed, an ancient typewriter and a dumbwaiter, all of which plays their parts in the performance, as, with the intention of being disgusting, does the adjacent lavatory. (Coprophobics should probably avoid this show.) Also part of the action is the sometimes scary lighting by Nigel Edwards, the music and sound design by Nick Powell, and the all-important video design by Andrzej Goulding.
As you’ll probably have gathered, though it’s wondrously staged, The Tell-Tale Heart is the kind of horror show that not only intends to shock, but also to make the audience feel frightened, queasy, repulsed, and disgusted, as it peals with (slightly high-pitched) laughter. And I don’t think this piece contains a single spoiler. So go see for yourself.