By Ray Bennett
LONDON – The very camp but wickedly amusing 1973 film “Theatre of Blood”, which starred Vincent Price as a bad Shakespearean actor who murders his critics using devices employed in the Bard’s plays, has been adapted by Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott into a hugel entertaining night of Grand Guignol at the National Theatre.
Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent (“Iris”) has a rare old time as Edward Lionheart, an interpretor of Shakespeare’s works in not so much flamboyant as over-the-top productions that have been slaughtered rigorously by the critics on England’s daily newspapers.
Having joined the land of the completely bewildered, Lionheart contrives to invite his most insulting critics to an evening at a grand old abandoned theatre where he plans, Agatha Christie-like, to do them in one by one.
Key to enjoyment of director McDermott’s long but highly energetic production is to have a taste for not only a thesaurus of Shakespear quotes but also illusons in their most bloody and theatrical form.
The murders are drawn from such gruesome events as the multiple stabbing of Caesar in “Antony and Cleopatra”, Shylock’s pound of flesh in “The Merchant of Venice”, and the drowning of Clarence in a vat of wine in “Richard III”. When Lionheart mentions “Titus Andronicus”, the scalp tingles.
Illusionist Paul Kieve stages the murders in quite extraordinary fashion. They are as utterly convincing as they are hilariously horrific with blood flying and bodies crushed and the set on fire.
Designer Rae Smith’s marvelous set creates at atmosphere filled with the ghosts of egos past and echoes of vaunted ambition and defeated hopes.
The ensemble of reviewers is rich with observant peformances and Mark Lockyer, as the man from The Times, makes an heroic stab at giving critics a good name. Rachael Stirling (pictured with Broadbent) is engaging, too, as Lionheart’s daughter, who appears to recognise than her father has descended into a form of madness that is positively Shakespearean. It’s an interesting piece of casting as Stirling is the daughter of Diana Rigg, who played Price’s daughter in the film.
It is left to Broadbent to hold the enterprise together, which he does with an inspired comprehension of how to stop Lionheart’s outrageous exaggerations just short of buffoonery to make him somehow both hilarious and oddly touching.
Venue: National Theatre, runs through Sept. 10; Cast: Jim Broadbent, Rachael Stirling, Mark Lockyer, Paul Bentall, Betty Bourne, Hayley Carmichael, Sally Dexter, Steve Steen, Tim McMullen; Playwrights: Lee Simpson, Phelim McDermott, based oon the MGM, Sam Jaffe-Harbor Prods. film, screenplay by Anthony Greville-Bell from an idea by Stanley Mann and John Kohn; Director: Phelim McDermott; Associate director: Lee Simpson; Lighting designer: Colin Grenfell; Music: Jody Talbot; Illusionist: Paul Kieve; Fight director: Terry King; Sound designer: Gareth Fry.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.