Dorfman, National Theatre – until 8 January 2019
Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story, about a man who, driven mad by the ‘vulture eye’ of the old man he lives with, murders him and is pursued by the beating of his heart, buried under the floorboards, is a deeply Gothic tale. Anthony Neilson adaptation for the National Theatre updates the original, adding slasher film shocks while retaining the intense strangeness of the original.
The narrator is now a woman, Tamara Lawrence’s blocked playwright, who retreats to an attic studio to write an overdue play for the National. Her landlady is a socially awkward Imogen Doel. The two bond over vodka and pizza as The Writer seizes any displacement opportunity to distract from her empty pages. Then she makes the mistake of asking The Landlady to remove her eye patch. The terrifying sight of a vast, swollen eye eats away at her sanity.
But this is just the start, as Neilson weaves in unreliable narration and enfolding narratives that lead to a series of reveals that revel in their absurdity. The figure of The Detective, played by David Carlyle, intervenes, investigating Doel’s disappearance, as the chronology slips forward and back, leaving us to reassess our assumptions about what is real.
The play is staged with a design that, in the hands of Francis O’Connor, keeps the audience jumpy, from the simple expedient of putting up the house lights to showers of eyeballs, spectres reflected in the huge attic roof lights and a bathroom that becomes suddenly transparent, revealing its terrifying contents. The three performers clearly enjoy roles that allow all of them to keep us guessing as to who they really are.
Neilson’s writing is smooth and convincing, and he is confident enough to include moments of sheer silliness, including a knowing dig at the current West End production of ‘Company.’ His direction produces a slick and original entertainment, and revels in the physical nature of Poe’s horror. From unflushed toilets to gruesome eyeball sound effects, bags of body parts and an unnerving obsession with hard boiled eggs, there is not a shortage of gasp-inducing moments. While it does not pretend to be anything other than a great deal of fun, as an alternative Christmas entertainment ‘A Tell-Tale Heart’ delivers just what is needed at this time of year: shock, revulsion, and the kind of gleefully disturbing images that will stay in your head for much longer than you would like.