The Tell-Tale Heart is Edgar Allan Poe’s short story about a murderer who confesses to his crime after being haunted by guilt. A gothic horror, it reads like a miniature Dostoevskian morality tale of how the guilt of a crime leads, ineluctably, to punishment.
This production, written and directed by Anthony Neilson, is far more complicated in its story and morality. Both murderer and victim are young women: the former is Camille, an award-winning playwright who rents a room in a seaside town to pen her next play. The latter is her landlady, Nora, apparently disfigured (to say more would give the game away), who runs a boarding house in Brighton.
They form a friendship edged with sexual frisson, and the story stays relatively straightforward until Nora’s murder. After this, there are shifting realities, plays within plays and even two endings.
Tamara Lawrance plays the unravelling playwright made murderous by writer’s block, not unlike Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining. Lawrance delivers the hammed-up horror with a straight face while Imogen Doel, as Nora, and David Carlyle, as the detective who investigates the murder, bring a delicious comic menace to their performances.
Francis O’Connor’s stage design for Camille’s attic room features a bed, a skylight and an old-style typewriter. But this simple set becomes protean as the play slips and slides into its altered realities, with lightning sparks, puffs of smoke and suddenly moving props to amp up the thrills and spills. Nigel Edwards’s lighting and Nick Powell’s soundtrack is used to brilliantly creepy effect, making the audience jump.
Neilson’s script works well for the most part, though the humour delights in its own crudity with toilet and porn jokes. There are also a few too many theatrical in-jokes (irate men from the National Theatre leave Camille phone messages about missed deadlines), though these are quibbles over Neilson’s otherwise pacy, clever and funny writing. The blood and gore, when it comes, is schlocky and the horror is at its best when the drama drifts into playing mind games with reality.
If Neilson has a moral message, it is nothing like Poe’s: Camille’s murderous act ultimately relieves her of writer’s block, and even though she makes an artistic confession, it does not assuage her guilt. All the same, the production seems too playful to contain any kind of serious moral message. It simply shocks and entertains. By the time we come to its second ending, The Tell-Tale Heart feels like a modern-day gothic horror with postmodern bells on.