Staring at the vast and imposing scarlet curtain of the raised proscenium stage, I anticipate the six minutes of darkness promised by a sign outside the theatre. However, the beginning of the piece is not so much complete darkness, as a focussed and precise shadowplay of lighting on an actors face, performed to a soundtrack of “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
So begins The Tell-Tale Heart, a work by Barrie Kosky (after Edgar Allan Poe) playing at Carriageworks as part of this year’s Sydney Festival. Austrian actor Martin Niedermair embodies Poe’s short story, accompanied on piano by a barely-visible Barrie Kosky on far stage right.
The light oscillates across Niedermair’s face, creating creepy shadows and rendering his head disembodied, waxing and waning. He sits in intense silence, as the light begins his story before he utters a word. The lights grow, and a towering wooden staircase is revealed, stretching backwards and upwards from where Niedermair sits at its foot, rising into the blackness behind him.
Niedermair becomes the narrator and perpetrator of a macabre and evocative story about a murderer who is maddeningly fixated on a ticking heart. This is the narration of a man who insists he is not mad, for what madman would be able to pull off a calculated murder so cunningly?
Niedermair’s acting is impeccable, and he builds a repertoire of nervous tics that belie his character’s uncertainty of his own actions. Along with Kosky, he builds the piece into a crescendo of suspense and horror - aided by a microphone, which magnifies his micro-noises, breath and teeth-knocking, along with some inventive visceral effects which render the killer faceless. The staircase is beautifully deployed, with Niedermair often ascending to its giddy and impossible heights. In fact, he seems at times strangely angelic, hinting at the complex mind of this killer.
The Tell-Tale Heart is Kosky at his most minimal, drawing on the source material from his aesthetic confederate with just the right mixture of respect and rebellion - it just wouldn’t be Kosky without some kind of bodily fluid! The piano soundtrack (comprised of Bach, Henry Purcell & Hugo Wolf, among Kosky’s own music) is a postmodern pastiche of musical style, sliding into a carnivalesque counterpoint to the grim story.
Kosky and Poe are a match made in heaven - or perhaps in the murky depths of the human spirit. Their common aesthetics, along with a powerful performance by Niedermair, cross the boundaries of time to bring forward a theatrical piece that is powerful, haunting and satisfyingly spooky.
Sydney Festival 2009
The Tell-Tale Heart
Adapted & Directed by Barrie Kosky
After Edgar Allan Poe
Venue: Carriageworks Bay 17
Dates/Times: January 18–22 at 8pm, January 21 at 2pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038