Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Tell-Tale Heart at the National, or, In Wearily Familiar Territory

Note: A belated review of the performance on Friday 4th January 2019.

This riff on Edgar Allan Poe's short story commits a series of my more highly ranked theatrical crimes. But perhaps the most notable, and unwise, is to include quite a number of statements in the text which were presumably intended to be jokingly self-mocking and in fact invited firm agreement from this audience member - this began early in the first half with a masturbation joke ("Who wants to watch that?") - we have already by that point had the masturbation and on-stage toilet visit presumably so Neilson can say look what I can do on stage at the National - and concluded when this tedious show was crawling towards an ending with "Well the play was shite anyway." Indeed it pretty much is.

My only previous encounter with author and director Anthony Neilson was his work Realism at the Edinburgh International Festival back in 2006 which was one of the many mediocre new plays I've sat through there over the years. This is worse. The central problem is that Neilson can't seem to decide whether he wants to make a comedy or a chilling murder mystery. Mostly the evening sticks to the former (although many of the jokes are tired and while some in the audience laughed I rarely did). However, as the second half drags on the show makes an attempt to shift to the latter. The whole set up has been so mocked to that point I couldn't take the shift in tone seriously. A further problem with the shift is that, to work, it would require the viewer to be engaged by the plight of Celeste/Camille (Tamara Lawrence). Unfortunately, she is written as such an arrogant, tiresome individual who goes far too unchallenged by anybody else on stage that I felt the sooner she was arrested and removed to prison the better. The writing inflicted on Lawrence is generally problematic - it's difficult to see why Nora (Imogen Doel) is so attracted to her and it's simply ludicrous that David Carlyle's Detective seems to find it so difficult to spot that she's committed a murder when the signs are, in my view, unmistakable. The heights are reached when a voice over claims that Lawrence has planned the whole crime meticulously - a new definition of the term I was not previously aware of.


Among the overused devices Neilson throws into the mix there's a great deal of discussion about the difficulties of writing plays, self-mockery about having a new play staged at the apparently pretentious National Theatre, and about the assumptions artists of all kinds allegedly have about their importance in the world. I've said it before but I am sick to death of authors determined to tell me about their problems with writing - this iteration has nothing new to say on the subject - just get on and tell the story. In terms of the location of the staging, somebody makes this kind of tired joke virtually every year at the Edinburgh Festival - there's nothing new in it, and it has long ceased to be funny. If you think Organisation X is not worth your time then leave the slot for somebody who thinks otherwise. I was also struck by some jabs at audience members who might be thinking critical thoughts - there are times when this is another of those shows that verges on contempt for its audience having paid money for this stuff, though not as badly as some such shows I've sat through. The mockery of issue based theatre would potentially be funny, if I thought that anybody in the theatrical world who ought to be taking notice of it (starting with Rufus Norris himself) actually thought there was a problem - but I'm not convinced they do, and I wasn't convinced there was really any substantive aim behind this or any of Neilson's scattershot targeting.

There's also various suggestions of layers of unreality. Is this a play within a play? Is Celeste/Camille, hence the name confusion, dreaming it all? This links to another wearily familiar problem of new work - not knowing how to end. In this case, the show seems to stop, the lights come up, tentative audience applause starts, and a coda is then inflicted on us in which the Detective finally seems to nail Lawrence for murder.

Apparently Neilson devises his scripts with his performers, and all three have worked with him before, so presumably they must see more in this than I do - or of course it may just be that they need the work. Doel and Carlyle come off best. Carlyle gives a versatile performance in three different parts and benefits from the best line in the piece ("My boyfriend says I have an eye for these things" - funny and clever in context in a way that so much of this script isn't). Doel makes the most of the quirky landlady - though so needy and oddball is she that it becomes difficult to understand why anybody would take the room. Lawrence is I'm afraid weaker. As already noted she has much the worst of the script but she doesn't manage to transcend it.

The best of the show is unquestionably Francis O'Connor's set supported by Nigel Edwards's lighting, which brilliantly evokes an attic room in a rather seedy seaside town. Also commendable are the various bits of stage trickery - appearances/disappearances, movement of apparently untouched objects - I'm a bit surprised to see no illusionist credited in the programme, so presumably this is simply in a days work of the talented backstage staff at the venue. It's just a pity all of this is in the service of such a weak script.

Many in the audience, to judge by reactions, enjoyed themselves. After the first half I was bored, by the end of the coda I was pretty annoyed. This is a tiresome recycling of familiar, overused devices. Run now ended - but in the unlikely event of revival to be avoided.

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