Is Regan McNeil really possessed by a demon? Father Karras learns the horrifying truth…
This 2014 Radio 4 two-part play – initially broadcast over two nights at a much later hour than the usual drama slot – is a very different interpretation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel from William Friedkin’s 1973 movie. Adapter Robert Forrest concentrates on the relationship between Father Karras and Regan to the exclusion of many of the other aspects of the novel – the first part featuring Father Merrin in Iraq is covered in one passing sentence halfway through part 2, for example. In a fascinating interview still up on the BBC website, Forrest explains the logic of his choices and the fact that he enjoyed the idea of being able to write more scenes between the two characters.
It’s a valid choice when trying to condense the book down to 116 minutes, but it does mean that while all of the legion of characters in those scenes are fleshed out, some of the others feel a little shortchanged, Father Merrin in particular. Ian McDairmid really doesn’t get much the chance to convey the weight of the older priest’s experiences both generally in this field and specifically with this demon. The other members of the McNeil household also feel sketched in and we don’t have enough emotional connection to them to see how the weight of their own self-deceit is played on by the demon.
However, Karras, Regan and the demon are very well portrayed, both in the script and in the performances. Robert Glenister’s Karras doesn’t really have a clue what he’s getting into to begin with but the relationship between him and the demon grows as the creature probes at each and every sign of weakness – and you understand quickly why Merrin counsels him not to get involved in any form of dialogue with the demon when he finally arrives. Alexandra Mathie gives an extraordinary performance as the demon with Lydia Wilson’s Regan feeling like an abnormal adjunct to it, just one of the personae that the demon inhabits.
The sound design is similarly spot on: the musical stings between scenes sometimes grate (as they’re meant to) but you forgive them a lot for their final appearance, and the excellent way in which it conveys the culmination of the battle between Karras and the demon. Gaynor Macfarlane’s direction allows the scenes that need it a chance to breathe, while moving the many expository moments on as quickly as they need.
Verdict: Chilling at times, this is a different take on the novel from the classic movie that foregrounds the central conflict. 8/10