Sunday, 2 February 2014

Dracula - Blackeyed Theatre

I first saw Dracula on stage back in the Seventies, at the Empire theatre in my home town of Sunderland. The play starred Peter Wyngarde as the sanguinary aristo, and the play itself was the familiar abridged adaptation that also features in the fine 1979 Langella/Olivier film. This cut-down Dracula dispenses with much of Stoker's palaver about Transylvania, beginning with the arrival of the Count in Whitby, which is the location not only of Lucy's seaside holiday but also of Seward's asylum and Carfax, the house Dracula moves into along with his boxes of earth.

What I saw at Hexham's Queens Hall last night, however, was Dracula as Stoker told it, with only one major modification. Remarkably, a company of five managed to convey the entirety of the novel's complex plot in just under two hours. They also pulled off the feat of making the story seem fresh, while harking back to the Victorian stage melodrama that Stoker, as Sir Henry Irving's manager, knew so well. The result was a remarkable evening that gradually won over a restless audience, and ended with a standing ovation that included what may be the only two Goths in Northumberland.

I could say a lot about the play's wit and intelligence. John Ginman's script points up the sheer weirdness and occasional absurdity of Stoker's tale simply by taking all the dialogue straight from the novel. So when Van Helsing told Seward that they must cut off Lucy's head, fill her mouth with garlic, and drive a stake through her heart, it got a laugh thanks to the sheer bluntness of the statement. When Victorian stage magic allowed the vampire hunters to actually do it there was spontaneous applause.

The doubling of roles is also a stroke of genius. Thus Lucy and Mina briefly become Dracula's brides (the third one was presumably tied up elsewhere), Harker is also the bug-eating Renfield (both are imprisoned, after all), and Dracula is transformed into Van Helsing. The latter makes for practical purposes because Dracula goes AWOL for most of the second half of the book. But it's also the case that both characters are dominant, manipulative, and inhabit a world of death - they are characters beyond any normal human relationships in what is, among other things, a love story.

Not everything works, of course. How could it, when the original novel would have any publisher's editor today demanding massive rewrites, if not sending Stoker a straight rejection? But the Blackeyed players manage to give us Dracula's world afresh, with all the music, madness, and energy of the Victorian Gothic culture that spawned it.

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