I am a horror fanatic; I absolutely love stories which scare me. It takes real talent for someone to be able to make the audience feel in danger and frightened for themselves or the characters involved in the horror. The main franchise which is dominating the horror genre right now in film is ‘The Conjuring’ franchise. However, James Wan definitely took inspiration from ‘The Exorcist’, which many (including myself) consider a horror classic. ‘The Exorcist’ was based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, in 2018 Bill Kenwright produced a stage version of this iconic horror novel and film in London. Now in 2019, this production is nearing the end of its UK & Ireland tour, I went along to Capital Theatre’s Edinburgh King’s Theatre to check out how this terrifying horror works on stage.
The story follows Chris McNeil, a Hollywood actress, who is currently filming a movie in Washington D.C. Suddenly her daughter Regan falls ill. Not only is Regan’s behaviour abnormal but also there is weird, unexplained events happening within Chris’ rented property. When it turns out that Regan is not ill due to any medical condition, it becomes clear to Chris that Regan is experiencing a paranormal possession, therefore she begs for a priest to perform an exorcism on her deteriorating daughter.
Paul Nicholas delivers an eerie presence as Father Merrin. Paul does well in keeping this character mysterious even within scenes he is heavily featured. There is a good build of tension within the exorcism scene, one which was slightly lacking within the motion picture. The approach Paul has taken to this character is a more accessible route than Max von Sydow in the motion picture, there is definitely a more direct and unforgivingly honest attitude before the exorcism scene. Rather than the film version of a completely closed book who we never get to read. The mystery is still there, but there is more of a connection between this character and the audience. The only thing which slightly faulters this portrayal is the accent that Paul uses was at points questionable and unclear.
Susannah Edgley is terrifying as Regan McNeil. The innocence and youth that Susannah delivers as Regan in the beginning of act one connects her easily with the audience. However, her portrayal of Regan possessed by the horrific demon instantly breaks that connection. Susannah easily makes the audience feel tense and terrified. The audience don’t know what’s coming next which make their security with this character non-existent. This is done mainly by Susannah’s unpredictability and genius irrational portrayal as the Regan while she is possessed. The demon’s dialogue mainly needs to be mimed, which at first I thought would be a bit jarring and take away from the story, however Susannah manages to seamlessly mime that dialogue and make it work terrifyingly with her portrayal.
The legendary Ian McKellen voices the demon. Whoever cast this role deserves a freaking award. Ian’s voice is so suited to this character, it is simply spine-chilling stuff. If they ever remake ‘The Exorcist’ then he needs to do the voiceover. Going to see this production just to hear his portrayal as the demon is a reasonable excuse as his voice is surprisingly heavily featured and used brilliantly.
Sophie Ward delivers real tension and desperation as Chris McNeil. Within the first few scenes of this play Sophie’s portrayal seems rather too naturalistic and beige for this genre of play. There was also several drops in her accent. However, as the story develops, there is a clear emotional journey, the sheer panic, desperation and despair is portrayed powerfully by Sophie. And the relationship she leads as Chris with Regan is very nice to watch and develop.
Joseph Wilkins as Father Joe gives us a sense of realism, a figure of safety and hope in the dark world of the play. Joseph does well in not over acting the position of Joe as a priest and more as a man with strong beliefs. And the way he portrays the scenes featuring death and other dark themes/issues, are delivered with such believability. Ben Caplan portrays the troubles of Father Damien Karras with such sombre and emotion. Ben’s portrayal really does well to emphasize the devastation that Damien has with the loss of his mother. At points the conflict with the demon is not believable and some of the actions Damien makes seem irrational, this may be because Ben was not in the moment or an issue with the direction he was given.
Tristram Wymark delivers light in the shade of this dark horror as Burke Dennis. Tristram manages to radiate humour effortlessly. The way he has approached this character as a device for comfort with the audience is very affective. As much as the dialogue suggests comedy, it’s more Tristram’s delivery which makes this character funny and which makes his exit of this story, even more devestating.
Stephen Billington plays Doctor Strong and Patrick Toomey is Doctor Klein, these two actors deliver naturalistic portrayals, which give a good contrast to the surreal demon they are attempting to battle.
John Pielmeier’s script for this play modernizes this classic and makes it appeal to ‘The Conjuring’ horror generation. It simplifies a lot of complex issues which were making the plot drag out needlessly in the motion picture. However, it de-emphasize the iconic scenes which makes them seem unimportant and anti-climactic. Also, the use of the infamous window is nonexistent, whether that was a writing choice or a restriction is set budget we will never know. Sean Mathias’ direction works well to create a tense atmosphere and several stunning moments visually. Sean’s pacing with the script is pretty much perfect up until the final scene where it feels as though he powers through the latter moments of the exorcism scene. The one thing that he does pace well is the lengthy dialogue, along with the interaction that the actors have with the track of Ian McKellen as the demon, these interactions which could become boring have clearly given an energetic suggestion by the director. Anna Fleischle’s design works well with Sean’s direction to give an appearance which is different to the film, yet very affective. The visual of the stunning stain glass windows with Philip Gladwell’s eerie lighting design just radiates horror themes. John Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s projection design works adequately with Ben Hart’s illusions to give us some of the most iconic moments of the horror movie, however I feel their execution (pardon the pun) could have been better.
Overall, this screen to stage adaption is enjoyable, tense and disturbing, it has its own identity separate from the film, which works seeing as the film is 46 years old and needed updating for a 21st century audience. However, this play fails at points to capture the film’s most iconic and climactic points, this is mainly through the effects failing to do the same as those in the motion picture.
Written by Lewis Baird
Get tickets for ‘The Exorcist’ at The King’s Theatre via the link below: