National Theatre (venue)
13 December 2018 (released)
15 December 2018
Anthony Neilson’s play is first and foremost hugely entertaining. Even the trigger warnings outside the theatre can’t fail to excite; ‘this production contains strobe lighting, provocative language, some violent scenes, and moments and themes that some people may find distressing.’ No surprise that everyone rushed to their seats with anticipation. Though there is plenty of gore, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a work of many layers; a modern gothic horror with a clever dose of meta theatre and sparkling, character driven comedy.
Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story by the same name, Neilson’s play transforms Poe’s original story about a tenant who is driven to murder after becoming obsessed by the ‘evil eye’ of his land-lord. Poe himself was an originator, taking the traditional theme of 18th-century Gothic fiction and adding pschychological depth to macabre events. He was regarded as the bridge from early gothic horror in dungeons and castles to the twentieth centuries interest in the darkness that emerges from the subconscious.
This idea that horror lurks in our own minds as much is at does from the outside world couldn’t be better suited to Neilson’s updated story where the tenant who murders her land-lord is an award winning play-write. She has escaped London and locked herself away in a rented room in Brighton to write her long overdue next play, fielding irate calls from the National Theatre. Well, what’s a play-write going to write about when stuck for ideas, but her own life? Cue play within the play, which allows for two ‘versions’ of reality, including an outrageously camp police-man played by David Carlyle.
Gothic horror generally had a moral message – in Poe’s short story the Tenant is driven by to confess by the sound of his victim’s beating heart that possesses his imagination. Guilt does not seem to be at play in the same way in Neilson’s drama, though the detective sees her play as a ‘confession’ of guilt. What is more interesting is the exploration of the Writer’s hypocrisy in the face of her guileless Landlady played brilliantly by Imogen Doel. Tamara Lawrance gives an utterly convincing performance of the self-satisfied artist, oblivious to her shadow self. She believes herself to be exceptionally open-minded and un-shockable, capable of loving anyone and embracing all of life’s experiences. But when she is confronted with genuine honesty in the form of an affair with her Landlord (who has a disturbing eye disease), she wants to kill it.
This may all sound pretty dark but Neilson’s direction together with Francis O’Connor’s stunning design draws out comedy from every corner so you’re more likely to leave the theatre laughing than shuddering.