On its original cinematic release, The Exorcist became one of the most shocking films of the 1970s.
Whilst it’s hard to replicate 1973 sensibilities in 2019, The Excorcist stage production, currently at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, still manages to pull of a few moments that make it uncomfortable viewing.
But let’s rewind a little. Sophie Ward plays Chris MacNeil, a single mother and actress, shooting a new romantic comedy film. She and her daughter Regan are staying in an old house for the duration of the shoot. Whilst exploring, Regan finds a ouija board, and starts to talk with a voice, called itself Captain Howdy.
Just as Regan turns 12, it turns out to be far from the happiest birthday she will ever have, as she becomes by a force which calls itself the Devil.
Regan turns from a happy little girl into a foul-mouthed beast, spouting explicit sexual language, and despite consultations with psychiatrists and psychologists, there is no obvious explanation for her change in behaviour.
The theatre lighting was moody as we took our seats, with the set exposed, showing a creepy old house – it looked so good, even from a distance, that you could imagine it smelled damp and had condensation running down the windows. Also helping set the tone was an omni-present droning sound, which was slightly unsettling. And then bang! Good use of pyrotechnics begin the production, just when you least expect it.
Sophie Ward and Susannah Edgley quickly establish the mother/daughter dynamic, although the American accents take a bit of getting used to at the start. Edgley in particular captures the naivety and youth of Regan, and her descent into possession is genuinely shocking. When she talks sexually and commands the men to use her body, it’s very, very unsettling.
The voice of the Demon has a rich, gravelly quality to it, and it took me a couple of minutes to realise that it was Sir Ian McKellen’s distinctive tones bringing it to undead life.
What comes as a real shock is the use of language and the implications of what the Demon wants the adult males to do to her. That in particular is especially disturbing. The film’s classic imagery is there – Regan with the crucifix and her rotating head – and do still have that ability to surprise, all these years later.
Of the other cast, Paul Nicholas is the main headliner as Father Merrin, who only arrives in the second act, but he performs well as a world-weary priest who still relishes tackling the evils of the world. He carries a fragility too, making him more believable.
Ben Caplan as Father Damien Karras gives a strong performance as a priest questioning his own faith as he mourns the death of his mother, and his righteous anger as the Demon baits him is understandable, venting his frustrations on the body of Regan.
For such a dark story, there are genuine moments of humour, especially from the excellent Tristram Wymark as Burke Dennis, the screenwriter. He brings an effortless joy to the part, so his demise comes as a real shock.
Perhaps the denouement could have been tightened up, as it does come across as shouty, as Fathers Merrin and Karras confront and exorcise the Demon, and perhaps needed some more red lighting intensifying, and then lightening and lifting, as the Demon’s hold on Regan weakens, to make it more than just a tense shouting match.
The production ends with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which became synonymous with the production after being used as the film’s main theme. It’s only fitting.
The Exorcist sees the cast give spirited performances. The lighting, sound and set design are top notch, providing a really tense atmosphere. The constantly changing writing on the wall of Regan’s bedroom, and the subtle shadows of a man walking around, are a superb touch.
Tickets for The Exorcist are available HERE.