The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe

National Theatre
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Not that it’s a bad place to start, but my main points of reference for most interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe’s work are from The Simpsons episodes of the early 1990s. The Tell-Tale Heart, written in 1843, is one of the writers’ shortest stories at six pages long. It’s a visceral, macabre and gothic story about a man who, although adamant that he’s not mad, tells us his brief yet disturbing tale. After a week of creeping into his old landlords’ room at night, the narrator brutally murders him for no real reason other than the landlord having some kind of weird, creepy eye. He then chops the body into pieces, concealing the severed limbs under the floorboards. When the cops arrive, it seems he’s going to get away with it but for his guilt – a foreboding sound of a beating heart that only he can hear. This is what compels him to confess to the murder.

It’s refreshing to see a black woman as the main protagonist, and to see characters entirely from within the rainbow (LGBTQ) family.

It’s difficult to guess how Anthony Neilson will direct 15 minutes of short story into over two hours of compelling theatre. Is it a murder mystery or does it stay true to Poe’s dark, tense and twisted journey of the mind?

Neilson moves the story from the 1800s to modern times, so that instead of a man and an old landlord we see a woman – a play write – and a younger landlady. You’d be hard-pressed not to thoroughly enjoy this production, which I can only liken to the fun of riding a ghost train at say, Winter Wonderland in Hyde park, only to discover it’s the Big One in Blackpool… with a lot of egg references.

It’s a sluggish start, with a monologue from the main character – The Writer, played by Tamara Lawrence. But as the story blooms we discover the heel dragging is part of the build. Lawrence is convincing in her portrayal of a talented if defensive writer in the throes of writers’ block, although there is a softness missing that would give the character more authentic depth. Still, she holds the room flawlessly.

By the second half I’ve laughed out loud, jumped out of my seat twice and fallen a little bit in love with The Landlady, not least because of Imogen Doel’s skill and subtlety in portraying a creepy yet endearing dungaree-wearing eccentric.

Both performances are captivating, but my only gripe, and it’s a biggie, is that the chemistry between the two women is lacking, so much so that any romantic moments feel jarring and out of the blue. It’s refreshing to see a black woman as the main protagonist, and to see characters entirely from within the rainbow (LGBTQ) family, a lovely surprise not immediately obvious from the synopsis. The lack of romantic chemistry is more than made up for by the dialogue delivered with panache by Doel. Her timing is spot on to Lawrence’s perfect set ups.

Fun and deliciously gothic in equal measures, and thoroughly entertaining.

The lighting from Nigel Edwards, staging and design from Francis O’Connor and sound from Nick Powell work to create an atmosphere both socially real and dream-like, the touches of daily authenticity and dream-like obscurity creating of paradox of surrealism grounded in the everyday. There’s appropriate and inventive use of video from Andrezej Goulding, and as we move through the story all these details convalesce, dialling up maximum tension. Powell is stunning with his sound design, and there’s a real moment in the middle where this comes into its own.

The Detective, played brilliantly by David Carlisle, is not there solely to move the show along or to provide a welcome and poignant device for variation – Carlisle’s multifaceted performance is the most difficult to get as right as he does.

The story gets muddled towards the end. The essence of the Edgar Allen Poe story is the paranoid mind, so the confusion I feel is perhaps justified. I’m not supposed to get bored though, and I initially feel cheated by the lack of that foreboding beat of the heart so prominent in the original short. But it does all resolve and the twist is worth the confusion.

Neilson gives Poe’s short a modern extension with a before, an after, and consequently a clearer motive. It’s less distant than the original, where the protagonist seeks to de-personalise his victim. In Neilson’s version the focus isn’t in the same cerebral space at all, instead adding a new audio-visual dimension that delves beyond the surface of the characters. Fun and deliciously gothic in equal measures, and thoroughly entertaining.

NEED TO KNOW: NEED TO KNOW: The Tell-Tale Heart is at the National Theatre until 8 January 2019 | BOOK TICKETS NOW