Any production of the Exorcist has a lot to live up to when you consider the enduring popularity of the novel and film and, for the most part, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre doesn’t disappoint with this spooky Halloween spectacle of William Peter Blatty’s classic horror.
With the film and novel so thoroughly embedded in popular culture, the new production aims to take the best elements of both that would translate most effectively to the stage. From the iconic eerie theme music to key lines and scenes, the play doesn’t attempt to drastically reinvent the story but uses our familiarity with it to instead balance out what feels like a very crowded stage setting from Anna Fleischle predominately of the creepy rented house.
The 1973 film obviously lacks the special effects that we take for granted for today, but any stage production is even more limited. Instead, the performance recreates memorable moments that have continually won fans over, including projectile vomit, the bed-rocking and a version of the 360° head spin. Thankfully the play doesn’t waste time rehashing Father Damien Karras’s back story and cleverly focuses on his fragile mental state in a production that relies on the psychological.
I wasn’t the only one to shriek when the house-lights suddenly went out to create a giddy adrenaline through the audience at the production’s start.
A lot is owed to Tim Mitchell for his lighting design and the video and projection design of Duncan McLean. The play makes great use of light and shadows in order to tap into the spectator’s primal unconscious reflexes, or by creating eerie projections of Karras’s mother and the inky tendrils of the demon. Believe me, I wasn’t the only one to shriek when the house-lights suddenly went out to create a giddy adrenaline through the audience at the production’s start. In fact, I’m pretty sure that my sister whispered that she hated me for bringing her along.
However, while the composer and sound designer Adam Cork’s was mostly effective at creating tension in the audience, it wasn’t just my sound engineering student sister that noticed certain flaws. Ian McKellen’s deep sonorous tone was definitely a win for the play’s sound thanks to his ability to swing from malevolent glee to venom-spitting rage. His demonic voice was cleverly bounced around the auditorium to menacingly surround the audience and draw us into the illusion successfully created by the lighting and projections.
Ian McKellen’s deep sonorous tone was definitely a win for the play’s sound thanks to his ability to swing from malevolent glee to venom-spitting rage.
The ominous impact was occasionally lost, however, when you were straining to hear words that were meant to strike fear into your heart. On the whole, I do think the audience’s familiarity was in the production’s favour here, as other imperfections like seemingly fluffed lines of “first name” instead of “middle name” by Peter Bowles as Father Merrin, were ignored.
That isn’t to say the script wasn’t well-written, but it wasn’t particularly inspiring either. The cast was smaller than the film, but they still didn’t have much to work with. Nevertheless, a great deal of admiration must be given to Claire Louise Connolly for role of the possessed Reagan. Despite being in her 20s, she deftly switched from the sweet 10 year old to lipsyncing McKellen with murderous rage. This was particularly complemented by the strong maternal bond set up at the very beginning of the play with Jenny Seagrove as the distraught mother.
So many people will complain that the production wasn’t scary enough, but the Birmingham Repertory Theatre admirably rose to the challenge.
With the desensitised audiences of today, any production of The Exorcist is a challenge. So many people will complain that the production wasn’t scary enough, but the Birmingham Repertory Theatre admirably rose to the challenge by creating a production that entertains and does speak to your inner fear that there’s something dangerous waiting under your bed.