Outside London’s Phoenix Theatre little girls dressed as witches jumped out of the shadows. Inside, the night’s proceedings began with bangs and flashes in the dark, followed by the thumping of an invisible heart and a scream that was echoed by the more impressionable audience members. It was the weekend before Halloween and, appropriately enough, a stage adaptation of The Exorcist was in its final previews.
And did the play prove as scary as William Friedkin’s 1973 film that based itself on William Peter Blatty’s original novel? For some, perhaps. For me, only when Sir Ian McKellen was speaking.
What? What was Britain’s greatest living classical actor doing in what was, let’s face it, an updated, upscale version of the sort of melodrama that had the Victorians gnawing their mittens?
Anyway, wasn’t McKellen at that very moment giving a much praised performance of King Lear in Chichester, 70 miles away? By what diabolic magic had he bifurcated? Were we really hearing the elegant, authoritative, utterly unmistakable voice of Richard III on the stage, Gandalf on the screen and a hundred other characters?
Yes, indeed we were. McKellen was Pazuzu, Dr. Howdy, Satan, or whatever is the identity of the devil that decides to inhabit Clare Louise Connolly’s Regan MacNeil, the sweet little 12-year-old who has played unwise games with the Ouija board she has found in her borrowed bedroom.
He variously smarms, wheedles, hisses, growls, bellows, mocks, browbeats, menaces, terrifies the girl, Jenny Seagrove as her mother Chris and the rest of Sean Mathias’ cast, all from what appears to be the depths of Regan’s abdomen. Considering Sir Ian is invisible throughout, it’s a pretty versatile performance—and sufficiently sinister to prickle napes of necks and give spines a bit of a chilling.
John Pielmeier’s script is faithful enough to both book and film, though it’s a family friend, and not a visiting astronaut, whom Regan prophesies will soon die, urinating on the floor as she warns him. He duly makes a terminal exit through a window after the girl has twisted his head half off. By that time her obscene behavior and four-letter words—the sort that couldn’t be heard onscreen 44 years ago—have brought in the medical professionals, one of whom gets a piece of ear bitten off and ingested.
The play could, I suppose, be seen as an attack on 21st-century rationalism. The doctors inevitably look for psychological explanations, raising the all-too-topical possibility that Regan has been sexually abused, conceivably by the far-off father who has just forgotten her birthday.
Even Adam Garcia’s Damien Karras, Jesuit priest as well as psychiatrist, dismisses the notion of demonic possession with a sneer about wanting a time machine to return to the 16th century. It takes the arrival of the arch-exorcist Father Merrin, played by that eminent actor Peter Bowles, to half-convince him that girls who talk like a cross between the giant Gogmagog and the big bad wolf might be in some sort of spiritual trouble.
Much, too much, is made of Karras’ absorption with his late mother, whom he feels he rejected for a God in whom he now only half-believes. Did he love her enough? Did she disgust him when she succumbed to dementia? More to the point, do we in the audience care very much, even when she materializes as a wispy hologram, her spectral, accusing face at one point masking Regan’s own? Still, her story does allow the demon to taunt Karras and try, as demons do, to drive him to despair.
Did I believe it all? Well, I wanted to. In fact, I once knew a down-to-earth Jesuit priest who spoke of possession and exorcism as ordinary if unsettling events and described his experience of both. Only last week the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a translation of the Latin exorcism rituals, suggesting that evil spirits not only exist but may be cast out in good American prose.
Yet I found it hard to suspend disbelief, skepticism, whatever, despite the lurid special effects created by the “illusion designer” Ben Hart and others.
Regan’s bed shakes. There’s a sudden wind along with a shattered window. Unexplained shadows and silhouettes appear, as do clouds of ectoplasm. What look like rats run down the wallpaper. Thanks to a trick with the preposterously large wig that Regan acquires, one of the film’s most celebrated moments actually works. Her head does a brisk 360 degree turn.
Yet I often felt the show lacked the stealth, the subtlety, I remember from the film (and even the TV show, if the positive reviews of that are to be believed). There’s much right with Mathias’ staging, which sustains its narrative flow throughout, briskly switching from room to room, seedy attic to church alcove, up and down, up and down, in the vast doll’s house that is Anna Fleischle’s cleverly designed set.
Yet a sense of dread is missing. Perhaps the show is too dependent on those special effects and sensational moments, as when Regan capers about, shoving a crucifix up her hidden but bleeding vagina. Perhaps more quiet foreboding, more loaded silence, is wanted.
And perhaps some actors need to remember an old theatrical truth. What often makes stage events horrifying—think Hamlet and his father’s ghost—is less monstrosity itself than the actors’ reaction to it. Here, I can’t fault Jenny Seagrove, very much the stricken and appalled mother, or Peter Bowles, whose grave arch-exorcist clearly has the experience wearily to greet a demon rather as you and I might treat a disruptive interloper at a potentially pleasant dinner party.
But more tension, more fear might be generated from the over-complacent medical men and, especially, from Garcia’s Karras, whose continued skepticism despite nastiness galore is more like stolidity—and changes to belief too abruptly.
I’d also complain of an ending that’s equally sudden and, to me, a bit unclear. How many extinct priests are there onstage as the lights go down? Still, it’s all good bad fun. I can’t take this Exorcist as seriously as Pielmeier, who declares in the program that it’s about “faith and disbelief, about doubt and courage and extraordinary love.” But it kept me somewhere near the edge of my seat, at least when McKellen’s voice was at its creepy best.
The Exorcist is at the Phoenix Theatre, London WC2, until March 10, 2018. Book tickets here.