The theatre has become a great avenue for horror fans to venture down. In recent years, we have embarked on terrifying journeys through live productions such as The Woman in Black, Let The Right One In and Ghost Stories. These plays have done for the stage what The Exorcist did over three decades ago for film. Now, The Exorcist has burst its way into London’s Phoenix Theatre, leaving heads spinning.
Adapted by William Blatty from his 1971 novel The Exorcist, the 1973 film saw Blatty team up with Director William Friedkin. The pair conjured up a tale so twisted that The Exorcist is still regarded as one of the most controversial horror films to date. The terror surrounding the motion picture was only strengthened by reports of audience members frequently running out of the cinema, being sick or fainting upon seeing it.
The film became such a bad omen that even the cast and crew of the original production have claimed that the film was cursed. Throughout the shoot and even after release, the team suffered through terrible and tragic events.
Directed by award-winner Sean Mathias, the live production features an inspiring team including award-winning designer Anna Fleischle, lighting designer Tim Mitchell, sound designer Adam Cork and illusionist Ben Hart. The play begins with an immediate shock, descending the audience into utter darkness. The stage is split into three sections, representing the plot of the three main characters. The scene opens with Regan, played by Claire Louise Connelly, in bed, feeling abandoned on her birthday as her showbiz mother must work.
Demonstrating Regan’s angelic qualities, she gives her mother a flower before she leaves. Subsequently the flower decays on her mother’s exit, setting the tone for the next two hours.
The story does not dawdle, quickly introducing a Ouija board found by Regan and her new mysterious friend, Captain Howdy. Isolating Regan, Captain Howdy emotionally manipulates the vulnerable pre-teen into mutilating her arm for his approval.
Throughout the play, it is heavily suggested that if Regan not been continuously left alone at such an impressionable young age, maybe she wouldn’t have been so vulnerable to possession.
Her first public display of disturbing behaviour occurs at a party held by her mother Chris, played by Jenny Seagrove. Understandably alarmed by Regan’s behaviour as she urinates on a guest, exclaiming he was going to die, Chris initially puts the unnerving faux pas down to sleepwalking. Bad party etiquette aside, Regan’s morose behaviour increases rapidly, as she vocalises relentless obscenities and engages in over-sexualised behaviour to medical staff and household members. It is also suggested that perhaps something else was going on, such as sexual interference, and that this “possession” was nothing more than psychological trauma and depression.
The theme of science versus faith is strong throughout, with clashing ideas from each side. The juxtaposition of psychiatrists suggesting faking an exorcism, and the oxymoronic “priest-psychiatrist” Father Joe (played by Adam Garcia), who suggests that Regan needs psychiatric treatment, illustrates this conflict. Shocked and appalled at the doctors suggested placebo, her desperate mother eventually approaches the help of two priests – with tortured souls of their own.
The Exorcist focuses heavily on faith, logic, guilt and family, and pushes the boundaries of inappropriate sexual behaviour from a minor. With only a handful of cast members, the play demonstrates how you can transfer horror from the big screen and create a living nightmare.
This chilling theatrical experience does not dilute anything seen on screen. Claire Louise Connelly’s Regan accurately evokes the terror and suspense of the original. The strongest moments of supernatural horror were retained on stage, and ultimately its climax is every bit as harrowing as the original demonic encounter. The grotesque scenes that instigated such outrage decades before still cause willing spectators to wince as they peek through their hands.
An interesting element added to the play, whilst honouring its predecessor, is the ability to laugh at itself. Throughout the production, characters make light of the disturbing situations around them. It is gleefully jested by one character, after being urinated on, that it “wasn’t the first time”.
The devil himself, played by Sir Ian McKellen, adds comedic value to some disturbing scenes. This addition transforms the production into a dark, satirical comedy, blowing raspberries at religion, conformity and prejudice.
However, when it comes to children and animals, even hardcore fans have difficulty swallowing the injustices of unwarranted evil that target the vulnerable. Watching Regan behave the way she does, and hearing the obscenities that come out of her mouth, would make a sailor blush. Her over-sexualised behaviour and self-mutilation, coupled with the image of her spelling out “help” on her stomach, make it difficult not to whimper.
If you’re brave enough, The Exorcist is showing at London’s Phoenix Theatre until March 10th 2018.