ANDREW GARVEY reviews the latest production of Dracula at Staffordshire’s New Vic Theatre
The New Vic Theatre in Staffordshire has built a national reputation for putting on high quality, innovative productions. Dracula is no exception.
The theatre-in-the-round format (no raised stage, minimal scenery and the cast surrounded by the audience) creates as many awkward difficulties as it does creative opportunities for an adaptation like this but in re-interpreting Bram Stoker’s classic, and this is very much a theatrical version of the book, this production emphasises sound, starkly atmospheric lighting and some great acrobatic sequences.
The story remains largely faithful to Stoker’s novel, although some characters that might otherwise have cluttered both the narrative and the stage have been excised. Renfield is obliquely involved but there’s simply no room for Arthur Holmwood or Quincey Morris. The adventuring American’s absence will, and did, provoke some muttering from the post-show chatter but removing him was probably the right choice.
Sticking fairly closely to the narrative, those who know the story well won’t be especially surprised by the play’s events, but the way iconic scenes are portrayed is what makes this production so good.
The high-flying sequences are largely left to the ‘Sisters’, Dracula’s trio of ‘brides’ or, erm, ‘vampire tarts’ and they’re hugely impressive, especially when tormenting Harker in the dead of night. All three (Hazel Lam, Sophie Morris and Rebecca Rennison) are accomplished circus and aerial performers and it shows. They also get one particularly unpleasant scene that works extremely well, especially for a production that doesn’t rely on cheap and obvious effects like the splashing about of fake blood.
Visually, this is much starker than many of the New Vic’s literary adaptations. Three colours – black, red and white – dominate and all are used very effectively. Much of the story is mimed or verbally recounted and this, along with some great use of trapdoors, works throughout.
The sound effects are performed live, Foley-style. Named after Universal Studios sound pioneer Jack Foley (who worked on the studio’s 1931 Dracula film), Foley effects were originally developed for radio plays and involve creating sound effects using everyday materials. These are rarely used onstage but in Dracula the Foley artists (including, at times, the acting cast) are working very visibly at three stations in the theatre.
As distinctively atmospheric as they are, there is an element of distraction. When you know there’s someone nearby making the noises of Dracula biting Lucy, it’s hard not to find yourself looking away from the action to see exactly what they’re using to achieve the right effects.
Dracula himself (played by two different actors – one old, one young) makes a fantastic entrance, lit by a single bulb, casting an immense shadow over the stage. The older Dracula, played by actor, writer and academic Jack Klaff is a dominating presence. He has a great voice for the role and physically, is reminiscent more of a retired wrestler than a wizened old man hiding in his castle. His accent, especially when shouting, at times becomes a little unclear but he’s a commanding and even slyly humorous Count. The younger Dracula (Jonathan Charles) looks the part and handles his action sequences well but is overshadowed by Klaff.
The rest of the cast are perfectly suited to, and do a fine job in, their roles. John O’ Mahony’s Van Helsing occasionally veers towards a comedy accent but otherwise, he’s excellent. Jasmine Blackborow is shockingly good in her professional debut as Lucy and Sarah Schoenbeck is a believable and powerful Mina. Isaac Stanmore’s Harker is convincingly nervy and vengeful and Ali Watt’s Dr Seward’s journey from a straitlaced doctor to a bereaved vampire hunter is just as compelling.
Finding new and interesting things to do with Dracula while not completely re-inventing the story and the characters is a difficult task. The New Vic Theatre have done it, and done it brilliantly.
Dracula ran at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire in 2015.