Day of the Dead: A Hammy Thespian Acts out a Bloody Revenge on His Critics
Portillo, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
Theatre of Blood
National Theatre, London SE1
"The editor cut my best bloody line." How I feel for George Maxwell, the fictional Daily Telegraph theatre critic played by Paul Bentall. Oozing self-importance and paranoia in equal measure, he has arrived at an abandoned London theatre, summoned by a mysterious invitation. As he obsesses about the gem excised from his prose by a typically philistine editor, he has no way of knowing that he is moments away from meeting a horrific death. Edward Lionheart (Jim Broadbent) is the old-style thespian--OK, full-blown ham--who, after bearing the slings and arrows of outrageous reviews, leaps into the Thames from a post-performance luvvies' party. But as Maxwell pays with his life for all those sneering notices, he sees the impossible: Lionheart hale and hearty. Through the blood that chokes him, he gasps that he thought him dead. "No. I am well. It is you who are dead. Another critical miscalculation!"
Lee Simpson's script for this production of Theatre of Blood, a collaboration between the Improbable company and the National Theatre, draws heavily on the best-loved lines of the MGM film made in 1973 (with Vincent Price as Lionheart). The play's action is confined to the decaying theatre, to which the despised tragedian has invited his detractors so that each of them may shuffle off this mortal coil in a suitably Shakespearean manner.
Maxwell finds himself playing a real-death Caesar to Lionheart's Brutus. The prissy and pretentious Sally Patterson from the Guardian (Hayley Carmichael) will make an improbable Hector falling victim to the Myrmidons, and the dipsomaniac critic from the Daily Mail meets Clarence's demise face down in a barrel of malmsey. And so on.
The play has great comic moments. What would happen if the Jew of Venice decided to risk losing his lands and life for the joy of removing a pound of Christian flesh from Antonio's breast? The horror is excellent, too. Blood spurts by the pint. Bodies are torn apart in graphic detail, and with spine-chilling sound effects. The illusionist Paul Kieve produces magical tricks under the overall direction of Phelim McDermott.
The problem with the play is the problem with the genre. There is only one gag as, Agatha Christie-like, the green bottles on the wall fall one by one until they are all gone. (Well, maybe not, but that would be telling.) Each murder is brilliantly brought off. Yet the play is by its nature repetitive and, in view of that, too long.
Still, it makes for a good evening of comedy and horror. …