Bram Stoker's Dracula is at the King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Tue 30 October to Sat 3 November) and a more perfect timing of Dracula being your stage production for the week containing Hallowe’en could not have been asked for, and more than a few members of the audience had taken the opportunity to dress up for the event.
The performance I watched was actually last night on Hallowe’en, and I deliberately insist on our old spelling and meaning of Hallowe'en, the night before All Hallows' as I write this review on All Saints Day, November 1st.
This new production from “The Touring Consortium” (and Everyman theatre and Ewing Entertainment) sticks probably as close to the original Bram Stoker novel as possible for any stage production, and although obviously edited and altered to suit the requirements of a touring stage production, does a good job of capturing some of that Victorian Gothic feeling. Maybe this is where the problems start though as Bram Stoker's Dracula is far from being the easiest book to adapt for the stage. There are so many problems with this book, and one of the most obvious is that the format of the book with its written journals and ship’s logs shifting not only across many places, but also time, make for a very difficult set construction and potential continuity issues for an audience. This set does what it can well in establishing different locations and time, but perhaps a split level set allowing the audience to view both time frames at once would have been an option to consider.
Set and costume design are impressive here and the opening few scenes are very well done with some very good thematic lighting and visual effects, but that is swiftly lost with the obvious scene changes that the multiple locations require. An over-use of some lighting effects also swiftly dulls their effects as we move further into this story.
The second, and no getting away from it, problem with Dracula is Dracula himself. The character has become the object of too many bad films, parodies and jokes over the past century and more for anyone to really take him seriously once a bad Eastern European accent is added and over exaggerated neck biting. Dracula as a character does not travel well to a stage production in my opinion, and Glen Fox as Dracula was always into a losing position with anything he did with this character. Character wise, there is for some reason a lack of believability about many of our main characters. Philip Bretherton (Professor van Helsing), Jen Holt (Fanny), Andrew Horton (Jonathan Harker), Olivia Swann (Mina), Jessica Webber (Lucy) and Evan Milton (Dr Seward) all move the story along very well, but there is no terror here, no sense of horror, and instead we plod along as if on some school’s educational outing. A few exceptions here, Lucy (Jessica Webber) is actually very good in the opening scenes as a young woman discovering her own self a bit more, and Cheryl Campbell as the insane Lady Renfield gets to put in a performance here that steals most of the production from others.
Despite what some people think, when Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first published in 1897, it was only one of many text and poetic works of the times that depicted vampires, and was very much in the “Penny Dreadful” tradition of earlier creations such as Varney the Vampire. Lord Byron and other poets had also made their contributions to the genre in even earlier years. What Bram Stoker did though was somehow not only capture the imagination of the reading public, but also lay the foundation stones of modern vampire lore and its principal characters. There are many layers to his work and the old medieval terrors of the eternal spirit finding no rest and the dead coming back to unholy life is an important aspect of the story, and this sheer terror is just not there in this production. Another aspect, perhaps often overlooked in the success of this book, is the subtext of a woman discovering her sexual desires which is touched upon here, but never fully explored. Underneath the terror of Dracula there is a very erotic sub-text that many women of the period must have found fascinating- this handsome, aristocratic stranger being invited into their bedrooms.
To begin to understand this production a bit more, we really have to as an audience try to imagine that we are at the theatre over 100 years ago and in the very time frame of Dracula, and turn a blind eye to rather odd (and very quick) blood transfusions done before anyone understood even the rudimentary principles of different blood types. Many wounded soldiers of the era died by getting given the wrong blood type in a poorly understood blood transfusion, and I suspect that poor Lucy may had died more from this one given by Van Helsing than anything that Dracula did to her.
Van Helsing here is an odd character. We are never given any solid facts for his beliefs and any credibility to his authority, and it is odd to watch our educated and professional characters so blindly accepting and carrying out some of his shocking solutions to the problem.
This production had so many possibilities, but in the end, despite some very good visuals, simply failed to give me any sense of terror of the dead coming back to life and Dracula was so thin a character as to be little more than a hunting animal. So many opportunities to do something beyond the visuals and get to the people beneath the surface were missed here.
Review by Tom King