Words by Ed King / Production pics from Robert Day
The Exorcist didn’t scare me, when I first saw Blatty’s existential/ethereal see-saw on screen at the Odeon. It was a midnight showing, the entire audience was under some influence or another, and I was a precocious 18 year old not about to be frightened by ‘the scariest movie of all time’. Surely nothing was going to be that shocking, not even the violent and blasphemous masturbation of a possessed 10 year old. Pass the popcorn mother.
As the REP fills out tonight I am reminded of that witching hour screening. Nervous laughter rolls around the packed auditorium, fueled by the tacit titillation you find in an Alton Towers queue, whilst an ominous swirling sound escorts us to our seats. Fun and fear are both thick in the air. I jump at a loud bang through the tannoy, then laugh, then notice that the REP has deep red carpets.
I also notice the potential pitfall to this production, as my friend points out all the film t-shirts being worn in homage tonight. The Exorcist is a spectacle, and for Pielmeier’s redrafted stage adaptation to claw back any sense of serious threat there is considerable work to do. Even if you’ve never seen the 1973 film or read the 1971 book, chances are you’ll know some of the story’s iconography. And we all want to see her head turn round 180 degrees.
I begin to wonder if this was such a good idea, culturally speaking, before the house lights are ripped away and we are thrown into an elongated darkness. Are we on the cusp of another, albeit darker, Rocky Horror Picture Show? In years to come will the audience be squirting silly string instead of projectile vomit? Will we shout ‘Ronald’ when the dialogue says ‘Regan’?
More laughter, more darkness. Less laughter, more darkness. More darkness. Silence now. More darkness. Mist appears and we are no longer alone. The spotlight falls on Father Merrin discovering the statue of Pazuzu, as he turns and voices a weary fear to the world.
Enter the MacNeils…
Beautifully lit, with obvious but well timed transitions from stark light to pitch black, The Exorcist looks great on stage. The MacNeil’s house is represented through a detached attic, a comfortably lit living room, nervous hallways, and of course that bedroom. We move from inside to out, from safety to danger, with simple yet effective techniques maintaining the necessary menace. Imagery of tortured souls and restrained torsos illuminate the occasional shadowy corner, whilst the projected wall paper surrounding Regan’s bed is manipulated to superb effect. Only the apocryphal stone stairs – that claim two bodies in the film adaptation – are left unseen.
Sound also plays a large part in delivering The Exorcist on stage – especially in our distinctions between good and evil, with the guttural shift in Ian McKellan’s Captain Howdy/The Devil voice over marking the rising anger of the beast. Never has the word ‘prize’ been uttered with such icy intent. Arguably though, even more could have been done here, with the audio lacking some of the punches that the visual throws out; if we’re going to get blinded, we can be deafened a bit too.
The cast has been stripped back to the principals akin to the Batty penned original, with Pielmeier’s sophomore stage show having had ‘a major re-write, refocusing the script entirely’ – eradicating some oddly superfluous support characters and reference points. No one mentions Rwanda on stage tonight.
Jenny Seagrove plays a wholly believable and tortured matriarch, if not a little stuck in her character at times, bouncing off the solid support from a divisively alcohol dependent Uncle Burke – played by Tristram Wymark. Ancillary characters come and go, providing useful context and bite sized development but having no real moment to shine. Likewise, Andy Garcia is given only a handful of chances to show the despair and internal rage that controls the conflicted Karras – and therefore the story’s premise. Two minutes with a punch bag and an internal monologue just isn’t enough.
But the absolute success from The Exorcist’s cast list is Claire Louise Connolly, who turns the cloying Regan into a sarcastic Satan – armed with a frighteningly endearing volley of retorts to Karras’s questions, assumptions and accusations… with a little help from Ian McKellan. But the interaction between these two (or three) characters, especially when dissecting Jesus’s martyrdom, is wonderful – and even with her hands tied, Connolly owns every facet of each character she is a conduit for. Superb stuff.
The weakness with The Exorcist, as adapted for the stage, comes in the writing. Presented like a series of sketches we miss the chance to see more character development, to feel the tension build through the actors and not just the acts. The oddly dependent, supportive, yet potentially dangerous world of ego and one liners that Chris (Seagrove) and Burke (Wymark) share could have blossomed into something so much more; both actors had a firm grip but not enough road.
Likewise Andy Garcia had much more to give us, with the philosophical banter between Regan/The Devil and Father Karras being stand out scenes in terms of dialogue – there just aren’t enough of them. Even Peter Bowles, who works immediately as the perturbed and detached Father Merrin, is so oddly cut out of the end narrative I almost wonder if Equity were involved. The second half of The Exorcist was just too quick and too dirty, with a rather hurried text missing opportunities to elevate itself above an evil pantomime. And once you see a child stick a silver cross where the sun doesn’t shine, you don’t really need to see it again.
Friedkin’s film excelled on the gore, and maintained some of the religious and intellectual threads that bound Blatty’s original prose together; The Exorcist is about a possessed girl, and all the horror that comes with her, but it’s Father Karras’s struggle with his own faith that defines the novel. The subtext is morality and martyrdom; if there is a loving God, then why… and all that introspection. But John Pielmeier’s adaptation to the stage still lacks gravitas, linguistically at least, with some dialogue even feeling verbatim to that in the film. And whilst I have not yet found the balls (or time) to cross reference this fully, I feel a little cheated.
You could easily, happily, and arguably should, add 30mins to the second half of The Exorcist as a stage production, writing a handful of (new) dialogue led scenes and evolving the conversations with The Devil (especially about its seeming focus of “burning another priest on my fire”) to make this a much richer tapestry.
Although The Exorcist on stage, this time around, is a triumph for the actors involved – one so well earned it made me stand up to clap. Something I’m not overly eager to do. Using used often stale and trite lines, or bizarrely spoon feed plot points, the cast still managed to make me care.
Sean Mathias has delivered his creative brief with aplomb (one which could have fallen into the trap of over familiarity or schlock horror) through a hard working ensemble who simply deserved better words to work with. The Exorcist currently being performed is definatley worth seeing, even if you’ve never cared for its previous incarnations.
And whilst The Exorcist is still not scary, I can live with being able to sleep well at night. Just give me an intelligent battle between good and evil to mull over when the lights go out.
The Exorcist runs at the Birmingham REP until 5th November. For direct info, including show times & online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/the-exorcist
For more from the Birmingham REP, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk