It takes about ten minutes to read Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) and over two hours to sit through Anthony Neilson’s updated dramatisation of it – with less chilling results. What we’re lumbered with is a Grand-Guignol farce that somehow gives the impression the cast made it up as it went along.
It begins, totally unpredictably, at an Olivier-like ceremony where young writer Celeste Allen (Tamara Lawrance) has just won an award for her debut play, Pendulum, which she rejects because she doesn’t believe in making distinctions between success or failure. Her snub causes a tsunami of headlines in the press and on social media, and to escape the fallout she leaves London and takes up temporary residence in a studio flat somewhere in Brighton, where she hopes to begin a new play commissioned by the National Theatre.
Trouble is, she’s distracted by Nora, her landlady (Imogen Doel), a singularly weird young woman with a tortured background who wears a phantom-like mask over part of her face to conceal a bulging, distended “vulture eye” she has had to live with from birth. As in the original Poe story, Celeste becomes so obsessed with Nora’s eye that the obsession turns to grisly murder culminating in Nora’s corpse being dismembered and buried under the floorboards.
Despite the gruesome mechanics of Poe’s plot and the numerous psychological twists, including lesbianism, with which Neilson (who also directs) has endowed this slender narrative, what emerges is an over-the-top update that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Both Celeste and Noel (whose names confusingly change in the course of the play) undergo personality shifts that obfuscate rather than enlighten while the mood veers from unmitigated horror to belly laughs, making it impossible to gauge just what Neilson had in mind.
Nothing can be taken seriously. It’s an anything-goes mish-mash in which a character playing a deliciously camp policeman (David Carlyle doubling as an accusatory detective) claims to have seen the recent production of the musical Company, which he thought was okay but not as amazing as all the hype. There are throwaway references to Judi Dench, Tim Hiddleston, Joanna Lumley and the voice of a National Theatre executive who accelerates from calmness to abuse as he admonishes Celeste for non-delivery of her new play.
Logic plays no part in this Tell-Tale, which ends with Celeste finally fulfilling her National Theatre obligations by writing a play she decides to call The Tell-Tale Heart.
On the plus side, Lawrance, Doel and Carlyle make brave stabs at fleshing out characters I found impossible to engage with, while Francis O’Connor’s seedy, dilapidated set, Nigel Edwards’ attempts at mood-enhancing lighting and the video design by Andrzej Goulding at least give the physical aspect of the production some dramatic clout.
I can’t be sure whether Neilson deliberately wrote this ghoulish farrago with his tongue well in his cheek, but that’s how it seemed to me.