Eye-catching, over-reaching: The Tell-Tale Heart at the NT
The Tell-Tale Heart
Pit F15, £15
27 December 2018
Anthony Neilson’s new play The Tell-Tale Heart, an adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe, is not quite able to meet its high ambitions, and takes those ambitions a little too seriously to be straightforwardly entertaining. Nevertheless, a lot of it is very fun, it’s all certainly refreshing, and it just be worth it anyway just to marvel at the set and prop design by Francis O’Connor.
Neilson succeeds most in the first half, particularly in the construction of his central character Camille/Celeste, winningly played by Tamara Lawrance. In sum she’s a hatchet job on the successful young artist: arrogant, superior and lost in the story of her own mythologizing, all of which is unconvincingly stuffed behind a veneer of self-denying worthiness. The writing is acid but also realistic, perfectly balancing the revelation of character with the need for that character to be an agent of the drama.
It’s all gone skewiff by the end, however. Part of me thinks that this is because the surgical simplicity of the Poe is poor source material for a two-and-a-half-hour play. Neilson goes to town, very impressively: I counted as many as five diegetic levels, all cleverly crafted; the eye/egg seeing/eating motif is used about as thoroughly as it could be; as well as the Poe Neilson references Burroughs, Lynch and no doubt numerous others; he lassoes in concepts of community and identity, inner and outer beauty, creativity and authorial power. He gives us the works, and consequently dissipates Poe’s precision power.
More specifically, Neilson simply runs out of juice towards the end of this bloated adaptation. If you’d found me at the interval I was all smiles: the writing is undeniably fun and clever, the acting is strong, the set looks terrific, the terrible eye is the right amount of scary and goofy and in general Neilson as director creates a fun atmosphere of gory discomfort. But by the time we escape the theatre we’ve had a few endings too many, a few speeches too many and some off-tone, irritatingly sincere-sounding hand-wringing about the fear of being truly known, a dose of moralistic bullshit that punctures the attitude of brassy audacity that had been so entertaining.
I admire Neilson’s ambition and his skill, and he couldn’t have asked for better collaborators than the cast and production team he has at the Dorfman. But no number of Eraserhead references are enough to paper over the cracks that show when an idea is loaded beyond breaking point. Ultimately Neilson’s eyes are bigger than his stomach.
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