Did you know that John Pielmeier, who has adapted The Exorcist for the stage, is also the award-winning writer of Broadway hit play and Jane Fonda-led Hollywood film Agnes of God? As The Exorcist returns to the stage at the Theatre Royal Windsor ahead of a new tour, we talked to him about faith, demons and Ian McKellen. Time to get booking!
Widely considered the scariest movie of all time, the film adaptation of William Peter Blatty‘s best-selling 1971 novel The Exorcist sparked unprecedented worldwide controversy when it was released in cinemas in 1973. William Friedkin’s screen masterpiece saw audiences petrified to the point of passing out. It went on to win two Academy Awards and became one of the top ten highest-grossing films of all time. Now, 45 years after its release, fans of the film and theatre alike get to experience a visually astounding, intelligent and thrilling theatrical experience.
Inspired by true events, The Exorcist centres on the strange symptoms of young Regan. When the medical profession fails to provide answers, Regan’s desperate mother Chris (Sophie Ward) turns to a local priest for help. But before Father Damien (Ben Caplan) can tackle what’s before him, he must overcome his own shaken beliefs and unite with exorcism expert Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas), as this fight is for more than just one girl’s soul…
Nicholas, Ward and Caplan star in director Sean Mathias‘ new touring production, along with Tristram Wymark, Stephen Billington, Patrick Toomey, Joseph Wilkins, Susannah Edgley, Jonathan Blakeley, and, making her professional debut as Regan, Eliza Capel.
Following its opening season at Windsor, The Exorcist will tour until 23 November 2019, visiting Glasgow, Wimbledon, Stoke, Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen.
Talking to… John Pielmeier
Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and raised Catholic, John Pielmeier started his career as an actor. His first play, A Chosen Room, premiered in Minneapolis in 1976 and was followed three years later by his multi-award-winning play Agnes of God, which tells the story of a novice nun who insists her child is the result of an immaculate conception. It transferred to Broadway in 1982 and was made into a 1985 film, which starred Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly. Pielmeier’s other credits include The Boys of Winter, Sleight of Hand, Voices in the Dark and Courage onstage; and Choices of the Heart onscreen.
Before your stage adaptation, The Exorcist was a successful novel and iconic film. When did you first encounter it?
I first read it when William Peter Blatty’s book came out in the early 1970s. It was very interesting and scary and moving, but it didn’t affect me as much the first time I read it as it did when I re-read it for this project.
What grabbed you about it that second time?
I took it on because I found so much of it related to my own inner life in many ways. It spoke to me as a person and it was also something I felt I could comment on. Yes, it’s a story about a 12-year-old girl who is supposedly possessed by the devil. But it’s really about struggles of faith; the struggles that her mother has with her own lack of faith, and those of the priest who is trying to help her.
I think all of us have gone through situations where we have changed our beliefs in some way, times when we’ve lost faith or gained faith in something.
What was it like seeing those iconic moments created on stage for the first time?
It was incredibly exciting. Ben Hart, who is the illusions designer on the show, is absolutely brilliant. I’d say, “Ben, this is what I was thinking” and he’d have an even better idea because he knows so much more about it than I do.
What does seeing The Exorcist on stage bring to the story?
The story is incredibly theatrical. I was surprised no one had done this before. It’s essentially a story that takes place inside a house, mostly inside one room, with a small number of characters. It’s very contained physically, but it is absolutely boundless in an emotional and intellectual way.
And being in the same room when it is all happening is a very different, wonderful experience to seeing a movie. Being in front of living people re-enacting something right before your eyes in a very present-tense way is incredible.
What do you choose to believe in with regards to the supernatural?
Oh, that’s a huge area. I probably don’t believe in the devil in the way that he is characterised in the play. But I think symbolically, it’s a very powerful thing. I’ve always been fascinated by asking questions, not about finding the answers. A lot of these things we can’t know the answers to, that’s why faith is about taking something without proof.
How do you feel to have Ian McKellen providing the voice of your demon?
What was so exciting about that, for me personally, was to be in the studio when he made those recordings. I was watching Ian McKellen doing all this amazing stuff. That was terrific.
How important is it that the show is touring the UK?
I think it’s so important to take pieces on tour around a country to make these stories accessible to people, not only financially but also in terms of proximity, because I think so many stories, and especially The Exorcist, have something important to say.
In your career, you’ve written plays, films, television series & novels, receiving a host of nominations & awards. Is there anything left to achieve?
I try not to think of things in terms of achievement. What I want to achieve is to keep working and creating and having my creations take form in a way beyond my computer.
What can audiences expect from The Exorcist?
I hope they will be excited by it and a little scared by it at times. They might get a few of those chilling moments. But I hope they will come away with a feeling that it’s not just a horror story; there’s so much more to it than that.
The Exorcist runs from 4 to 14 September 2019 at the Theatre Royal Windsor (just 40 minutes by train from London), 32 Thames Street, Windsor SL4 1PS, with performances Monday to Saturday at 8pm, and 4.45pm matinees on Friday 6, Saturday 7, Thursday 12 and Saturday 14 September. Tickets priced from £19.50. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!