Dracula By Lamplight
Like Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, and Tarzan, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has enjoyed more re-imaginings over the years than most well known literary figures. Indeed, our modern idea of Dracula is as much derived from Tod Browning's reimagining for his 1931 classic movie for Universal Studios starring Bela Lugosi as from Stoker’s original novel. A movie heavily influenced by the 1924 stage play Dracula as reimagined by playwright Hamilton Deane. Adding yet another adaptation to this already illustrious list writer/director Anna Simpson sets about an ambitious re-imagining for the stage of Stoker’s legendary vampire, this one delighting in a high degree of faithfulness to Stoker’s novel in places. Yet looking, at times, like a graduating class production from the Marcel Marceau School of Performing Arts, Simpson’s “Dracula” proves to be both bafflingly bonkers and beguilingly brilliant. But not in equal measure. Indeed, if this were a final year performance in mime, talk, and physical theatre, “Dracula” would certainly achieve a pass for its five hard working cast members, with two achieving first class honours. But if its director shows moments of sheer brilliance, its writer would most likely be required to repeat college for another term.
In Simpson’s latest version, which owes more than a passing nod to Corn Exchange’s delectable Dublin By Lamplight, white faced, commedia dell'arte styled characterisations in moodily atmospheric light follow the quintessential Lord of the Undead as he departs from his castle to the heady delights of Whitby in England. Most of Stoker’s stalwarts are present, although some, like Texan Quincey Morris, barely constitute an unnecessary cameo. A laboured opening in a psychiatric hospital, even if it provides for a modestly satisfying circular conclusion, establishes the tendency to prolong scenes far beyond what’s needed. For notions of economy, or of making every word count, don’t enter the equation. At an expressed two hours twenty minutes, two hours forty on the night, “Dracula” feels overwritten and lacking tension, often looking unsure of itself especially when it goes into psychiatric mode. Indeed, by the time the interval arrives after an hour and a half, it feels like a gratifying release. For Simpson’s script, less adapted so much as butchered at times, says far more than it needs to say, making the cardinal mistake of keeping too much grizzle and bone, as in an unnecessary suitor scene trying to add comic relief, rather than selecting only the best prime cuts, of which it has several, and preparing them to perfection.
If Simpson as director shows a flare for creating wildly theatrical moments wonderfully well, compositionally she often makes choices that result in poor sight lines, failing to negotiate the demands of the space. Performatively, Simpson also makes some curious choices, indulging a lack of rigour in physical expression at times as well as alternating the role of Dracula between several performers to no obvious benefit. A choice than soon becomes the elephant in the room as the switches ultimately prove distracting, ineffective, and undermining. Never more so than when an impressive Róisín McAtamney plays both Dracula and his victim Lucy. If a committed and hard working Anthony Kinahan’s Dracula references Max Schreck’s Nosferatu a little too obviously, his hyperactive Van Helsing often resembles a maniacal, eastern European, Lieutenant Columbo, with the question why he needed to play both roles begging for an answer. Colin Flynn as the impassioned Dr. John Seward delivers an invested performance, though at times he plays the abstract physical gesture rather than the scene. A problem throughout for many, with scenes not always being nailed for focusing on the physical at the expense of text. Even so, all cast members deliver truly impressive moments on several occasions. Indeed, Leah Rossiter as Jonathan Harker and Renfield, and Fiona Keenan O’Brien as Mina Harker, consistently enliven scenes by marrying sharp physical performances with a real expressive engagement with the lines. Indeed, a stunning Rossiter, along with a genuinely impressive Keenan O’Brien, both articulate top class performances, physically and vocally, announcing themselves as two serious talents for the future.
When it comes to mime, like clowning, the purpose is always to invest archetypal physical expressions with as much of the individual performer as possible and not simply to mimic stock movements or playfully mock them. “Dracula" is often fraught with this difficulty. And yet. During those moments when it all comes together, “Dracula” is nothing less than sublime. Opening the castle gates, the vampiric brides feasting on Harker, or countless ingenious uses of a simple white sheet, several elongated crates, and the three rotating ladders of Sarah June Mills's superb set design, prove mind-blowingly brilliant in execution, inventiveness, and simplicity. Simpson's clever use of lights, along with her haunting sound design, help deepen the sense of creepiness and enrich the experience at key moments. Moments that establish a baseline of excellence to which “Dracula” often rises, or, as is mindbogglingly the case, falls short, its own exacting standards which its director and cast have set holding it to account. Indeed, if “Dracula" showed a little more rigour, and approached its overwritten and narratively weak text, one that shows too much faithfulness to the original in many of the wrong places, in the same way it does it’s wonderfully understated play with vampiric sexual power, it could have been truly outstanding. As it is, it serves as a delightful Halloween treat. But oh my, Simpson and cast have everything they need to make it so much more.
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker, adapted and directed by Anna Simpson, presented by Quintessence Theatre in association with An Táin Arts Centre, runs at Smock Alley There until October 31.
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