The Tell-Tale Heart | Malthouse TheatreLeft & Cover - Martin Niedermair. Photos - Jeff Busby

A silence permeates the audience that is as deep as the blackout which surrounds us. Slowly a figure is revealed - but not the whole figure, a mere head floating in a void of space. Slowly it disappears, leaving an afterimage that lingers in the retinas. Did that really happen? Or did we just imagine it?

Such is the beginning of Australian director Barrie Kosky's stage adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe story The Tell-Tale Heart. Martin Niedermair stars as the unnamed narrator who kills the elderly man he lives with because of the old man's 'vulture eye'. He smothers him with his own bed and then dismembers the corpse, hiding it beneath the floorboards. However, he soon becomes convinced he can hear the murdered man's heart beating below the floorboards and is driven mad, consumed with guilt.

The Tell-Tale Heart displays stunning theatrical vision and is a technical triumph. Set designer Anna Tregloan shifts the traditional horizontal plane of the stage to the vertical with an epic stair case that ascends as if to heaven, with hell below - the narrator forever caught in purgatory due to his monstrous deed. Lighting designer Paul Jackson has employed a sculptural use of light, distorting the figure onstage by creating optical illusions, at turns mutating and demonising him before our very eyes, as if recreating a Francis Bacon painting live onstage. Slow crossfades stretch and isolate the space, pin pointing a single detail then sweeping out to reveal a vast and uncompromising abyss. By inverting the light source to beneath the narrators feet, the atmosphere becomes at once other worldly - as if a chasm has opened up, threatening to consume him whole.

Niedermair's wonderful counter tenor swells out over the audience, the beauty of the music juxtaposing with the macabre content of the text. Michael Kieran Harvey accompanies him on the grand piano, adding a haunting soundtrack Kosky's unearthly vision. The only point of contention was the delivery of the text itself. Niedermair spits and stutters, the lines are dragged out of him as if against his will. This forced execution distorted the text to the point where it became almost unrecognisable, and at times the repeated rhythmic delivery became lulling, distancing the audience from the brilliance of Poe's text.

That said, The Tell-Tale Heart sets a new standard for the possibilities of theatrical production and lighting design. Kosky is a director with a fine grasp of craft, creating a dark, twisted and wry work that remains true to the Poe's gothic tale of surreal retribution.

Malthouse Theatre presents
The Tell-Tale Heart
Adapted & Directed by Barrie Kosky after Edgar Allan Poe

Venue: Merlyn Theatre | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank VIC
Dates: November 19 - December 2, 2010
Bookings: 03 9685 5111

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