The Tell-Tale Heart is one of gothic virtuoso Edgar Allan Poe’s best known and best loved stories. Poe’s masterclass in the grotesque is reimagined here by Anthony Nielson, in his first play to be performed at the National Theatre.
Although Nielson’s interpretation revels in the same gruesome thrill as its source material, it must be said that he uses a good deal of creative license in his re-working of the text. Nielson has taken Poe’s story, which clocks in at just over 1500 words, and extended it into a full length theatrical piece, allowing both the time and space to explore any number of obscure rabbit holes within the text. I believe that Poe works best when he is indulged; allowed to get right in your face and under your skin. The intimacy required for this is perfectly suited to the Dorfman Theatre, the smallest of the National’s three stages.
Poe’s original takes the form of a confessional. It is narrated by a murderous tenant driven to the murder and dismemberment of their landlord by the landlord’s deformed “vulture’s eye”. The narrator conceals the victim’s body parts beneath the floorboards, and appears to have gotten away with the crime until, overcome by hallucinations of the dead man’s heart beating beneath the floorboards, he confesses. Nielson picks up Poe’s notion of the guilty conscience manifesting in hallucinatory insanity, embracing Poe’s creepiness whilst applying his own characteristic spin of humour and surrealism (as seen in previous works such as Realism and The Wonderful World of Dissocia).
This updated setting allows Nielson to play with ideas of conscience, looking at them through the twenty-first century lens of self-satisfied ‘wokeness’, mental health and living with disabilities. Nielson’s version casts the murderous narrator as a blocked writer who has taken refuge from the London theatre world to work on her second play, holing herself up in a room in Brighton, rented from a landlady with same eye disfigurement as the original.
As both writer and director here, Nielson’s production is wittily self-referential as well as reflective of its assumed audience’s self-righteousness – he even takes one or two bold swipes at the National itself.
Most compelling of all though, is the labyrinthine structure of the thing. The plot seems to frequently double back on itself, interweaving various realities and surrealities in layers that I’m still trying to map out in my head. Small inconsistencies and irregularities are drawn out into full blown absurdities. An excellent cast and a great deal of theatre jiggery-pokery (projection, clever lighting and sound) produce some really quite unsettling moments.
As the play gathers momentum, much of the subtlety of the creepiness is lost; replaced by more extravagant and even silly grotesqueness. The production is not so much in homage to Poe, nor in conversation with him, but rather picking up the story, kicking it about a bit and then jumping over the edge of a cliff with it. As a lover of Poe myself, I enjoy the anarchy.
The Tell-Tale Heart is playing at the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre until January 8. For more information and tickets, click here.