The Exorcist Theatre Review
Written by Hamzah Sarwar
Production presented by Bill Kenwright at The Phoenix Theatre, London.
Directed by Sean Mathias
Clare Louise Connolly
The Demon voiced by Ian McKellen
There were moments during this thrilling adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist where the blurry lines of fiction and reality dissolved into the very soul of the Phoenix Theatre.This grandstand theatrical production is electrifying. A palpable feeling of discord and dread lurks in the aisles, on the stage and deep within the gut. It can be seen on the faces of the actors. And gleaned from the audience’s collective gasps and uncomfortable laughter. Sean Mathias’s eerie play doesn’t let up as lady tension unmasks herself to reveal the face of horror.
For those needing a refresh on the plot. Events pick up as twelve year old Regan (the brilliant Clare Louise Connolly) begins feeling unwell. As her condition degrades and she begins displaying symptoms beyond rational explanation, her mother Chris (Jenny Seagrove) seeks help from the professionals. When medical exams come back normal, it becomes clear that there’s something far more disturbing at work. Meanwhile, Father Damian Karas (the solid Adam Garcia) is confronting his own demons after his mother tragically passes and he’s left to confront his dwindling glimmer of faith. When he’s bought in to examine Regan, it quickly becomes apparent that an experienced exorcist must be brought in as Father Merrin (the strong Peter Bowles) appears to complete the work. It’s the classic juxtaposition of good and evil, faith and its tribulations but also the deep well of a mother’s eternal love.
It must be said that John Pielmeier’s adaptation of the seminal novel doesn’t pervade into the depths of darkness or despair seen in William Friedkin’s 1973 classic film. It doesn’t get anywhere close. However, this version carries its own inimitable quality. The sheer physical proximity to the events on stage adds to the sensorial firestorm of witnessing the transformation of Regan under the insidious influence of the ‘devil himself’ who is played by the great Ian Mckellen. The pre-recorded performance is spine-tingling as he coaxes and pollutes the young girl’s body and mind with obscenities before eventually possessing her.
The rafts of special effects are illusory and spectacularly choreographed, but occasionally unnecessary. There’s enough at work here with the likes of the haunting spectre of Karas’s mother on screen, the spinning head and projectile vomiting without the need of the blinding lights and repetitive bangs. It only detracts rather than builds. The production design and utilization of space on stage is superb with Regan’s bedroom, the loft and even the dig in Iraq given flight with the intelligent use of lighting.
One could argue that this strays too closely to the framework of the film and doesn’t have its own identity, its own interpretation of Blatty’s text. While I’d partly agree with this, it’s not a bad narrative arc to follow and, with such a riveting pace, it very rarely allows one to settle. This version will satisfy those who are new to the harrowing tale but also ones more familiar with the film and novel. It adds a new dimension with the reimagining of the devil. It’s Mckellen’s voice that gives flight to a vision that unsettles and crawls under the skin.
The Exorcist runs at The Phoenix Theatre through to 10th March 2018.