Articles - 7th January 2019

Neilson’s Tell-Tale Heart is even more twisted than the original

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Elinor Potts

CW: Graphic violence

Taking residence at the National’s Dorfman theatre until the 8th January, Anthony Neilson’s new adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart is a twisted interlocking of the original tale with themes of artistic limitations, overcast by dark comedy.

Neilson’s writing and direction is self-referential from the offset. The story unfolds midway through a writer’s acceptance speech for ‘best new play’ with a bronze trophy taking the soft form of a heart (see play title!), at stage centre.

Star-struck and overwhelmed, the writer- Camille, (Tamara Lawrance) expounds the demarcations of artistic success and failure, before refusing to accept the prize, to the dismay of the awarding body.

Camille moves to a well-lit apartment by the sea to finish a play which the National have commissioned her to write, cheerily attending to how “globalisation gives rise to right wing populism”.

Neilson’s script is littered with in-jokes and references to previous National productions and a detective with a fondness for musical theatre later berates that, “I went to see Company a few weeks ago and it was… meh.”

Neilson has a perverse intrigue with the abject, testing tolerances and dishing out poo jokes in uncomfortable excess.

We meet the apartment’s landlady- Nora, (Imogen Doel)- an endlessly-babbling neurotic who dotes on her cherished tenant and has a charming propensity for soft porn.

Nora’s foundational knowledge of the art world, it transpires, has been acquired through the Sky Arts channel, and whilst she deems Camille to be her creative antithesis, she appraises, “I’ve only got one eye but I can see what other people can’t. You’ve got a good heart.” (see play title!). At this point, Neilson is liberally chucking handfuls of breadcrumbs.

We soon discover that the landlady has gone missing and a churlish Detective (David Carlyle) returns to Camille’s room for persistent questioning.

Through flashbacks, we uncover the depths of Camille and Nora’s relationship and their romantic dalliances, the likes of which produce lines such as, “I don’t think I should introduce you to cocaine and cunnilingus in the same night”.

As the pair grow closer and more comfortable in each other’s company, Nora removes her face-covering and there is a curious effect. The eye is absurdly bulbous, and the campy horror aesthetics imitate the stylings of Jim Carrey’s 1994 film The Mask.

Nora’s unveiling marks a point of no return as Camille becomes increasingly consumed by her unconscious urges, culminating in a feat of grotesque achievement from Francis O’Connor’s stage design in the nod to ‘Un Chien Andalou’ with a yolky addition.

Not for the faint-hearted, The Tell-Tale Heart is an inventive agglomeration of surreal and postmodern influences, charged with the sickening energy of Cronenberg’s body-horror in a carnal display of dismemberment, bad paintings and rotten eggs.

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