Image: Jeff Busby

There is silence as the house lights dim, and the blood red drapes become illuminated before opening in darkness. There is silence as the nameless man’s face appears, a spectre – floating almost. And with a strain of the eyes his body becomes just visible. The song ‘I could have danced all night’ pumps out, but with a rumba beat. The first ten minutes of The Tell-Tale Heart are delivered in stillness. It’s chilling.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story, adapted by Barrie Kosky, a man describes his obsession with the disconcerting milky raven-like eye of the old man with whom he lives. For seven nights at midnight he gradually opens the old man’s bedroom door and shines a shard of lantern light upon the man’s offensive eye. Each night he finds the eye closed – until the eighth night. As the shard falls upon the eye that eighth night, the young man sees that it is open and, unable to live with the sight of the pale blue filmy thing, he kills the older man who had otherwise never caused him upset.

Later when the police visit and he has convinced them that nothing is awry in the house, he cannot shake the sound of the man’s beating heart. Unable to cope with the pulsing noise he hears, and in desperate need of relief from it, he confesses his deed to the officers, who had believed him innocent till now.

Director Barrie Kosky has worked with time like a magician in this adaptation. Time is taken almost greedily and decadently. Even before a single word is uttered there is a sense of the amplified mind-state of this man who is about to give an hour-long confession. And in the confession too time is taken, masterfully, even between the syllables of words.

Performer Martin Niedermair handles each word carefully, drenching it in thought and then delivering it like a freshly born child, coated with emotion from the internal workings that came before. His skill is sharp. Every moment of anticipation in the text is accounted for. Niedermair’s physical presence feels hyper-real. Even in seeming stillness his body is alive and working to fill the space – every nuance, a brow twitch, a movement of the lip, feels magnified.

There is something endearing about the honesty of Niedermair’s Man. Despite the horror in his confession, he is captivating, intriguing yet unnerving all at the same time. From the audience there is no feeling of being implicated in the crime as you listen to the intricate detail. There comes no sense of empathy – almost a sense of separation, but still a morbid curiosity in watching his every nuance, not wanting to blink for fear of missing a movement.

The stage is reduced to just a staircase that seems to reach forever, darkness protecting the rest of the space from view. Anna Tregloan’s minimalist set coupled with Paul Jackson’s lighting is simply incredible. With no more than a handful of lights and one simple but grand structure, the horror of The Tell-Tale Heart is both framed and highlighted perfectly.

At times, the lighting design has the young man appearing headless or confined. In one moment his head appears to be spinning on his shoulders. The imagery created between body and light is macabre, gut-twisting.

The monologue is occasionally broken by musical interludes, combinations of voice and piano that effectively draw out tension and seem to extend time within the story, exemplifying the tenaciousness of this man who has taken no less than an hour each night to work open the old man’s bedroom door, slowly, without a sound. Niedermair’s incredible voice reaches soprano highs, and the transitions from song to text are flawless. Pianist Michael Kieran Harvey’s presence onstage, felt rather than seen, is ghostly and the music lends insight into the pace and intensity of the young man’s thoughts, depicting a madness he outright denies.

Kosky’s goal in this adaptation is clear: to do much with very little. A moment of silence from the audience before protracted applause made it clear he had succeeded. Kosky has given breath and dimension to Poe’s short story with just one astounding performer, supported by a small and inspired design team who were wise enough to not do much, but do it brilliantly. Kosky’s adaptation would leave Poe proud and gobsmacked indeed.

The Tell-Tale Heart runs until 2 December at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne. Bookings 9685 5111.

Allison Browning is a writer, theatre critic and editor. You can find her in less formal attire here ; formalities are done with here.