The Attic Theatre
19 October – 5 November
If you’ve read Bram Stoker’s 400 page novel you will realise straight away what a herculean task it is to turn this sprawling work into a playscript. There is no narrator, omniscient or not, but letters, diaries, transcripts of phonographs and multiple points of view. It’s not at all the stuff of a stage play and so Catherine Prout’s is quite a triumph. Her adaptation catches the spirit of the original and its language. She keeps just enough of the letters and diaries to let the theatregoer know what the original was like but creates an angle which clarifies and unifies the plot in transmogrifying the three Undead women in Dracula’s castle into Elizabeta, the Undead companion of Dracula, who appears with him throughout the play whenever anything unnatural or spooky is going on. This means that the whole focus of the play is Dracula and his influence whereas in the novel he only appears in two sections. She also reduces the writing about and number of Dracula’s boxes which occupy (rather tediously, I felt) many pages of the novel into a few brief mentions and only treats one of the several houses which Stoker’s Dracula bought in England.
This all means that the play is clear, tight, unified and consistently spooky. There is not a moment where the audience is not engaged because there is a lot of audience contact in this perfect small space, and a fair amount of audience threat, particularly at the end of the first half where the audience is in for an unexpected and nasty surprise. John-Robert Partridge’s production clarifies a great deal. The design is such that it can divide the space into three distinct areas when the audience can see the links and shifts from one scene and location to another.
The production opens with Rob Keeves’s Renfield, clearly barking mad all the time, a slang phrase becoming reality in his animalistic crawling about and his wonderfully scary face. Morgan Rees-Davies’s Dracula is imposing and a threat to everyone, addressing the audience directly towards the beginning when speaking to Harker and from time to time frightening one or more members of the audience. Dracula’s actions are clarified in the production as he is seen carrying the dead Lucy off in his arms before the funeral cortege. Dracula can also be seen sucking Mina’s blood later in the second half of the play. Alexandra Whitworth’s Elizabeta, appearing from the chimney breast and weaving her sinuous way among the characters, is an almost ubiquitous presence, not to be forgotten. She is the stuff of nightmares. Partridge also creates some clever visual parallels, for example in the moment where we see Lucy and Jonathan Harker (in different places and different times in the novel) both in their beds. This enables the audience to link and draw connections between different events and Dracula’s influence on them. His decisions also clarify many moments in the text, such as when it becomes clear that the bloofa lady is another manifestation of the Undead forces personified by Elizabeta. One of the most powerful techniques is when Partridge creates moments of still tableaux so that when they are broken by movement they become scarily significant.
The humans, meanwhile, are often not the brightest. Ethen McHale’s Jonathan Harker shows a lot of naivety, Emily Tietz shows that Lucy Westenra doesn’t know what is going on, Rosie Coles’s Mina Harker is not nearly as irritatingly knowing as in Stoker’s novel. Her posture and stances are always informative and Dominic Selvey’s Arthur Holmwood, dressed entirely in black, is sweet but a bit dim. Maybe Pete Meredith’s Dr Jack Seward knows what’s going on but he is less bossy than Stoker’s character and John-Robert Partridge in his long lustable-after leather greatcoat is less pompous as Van Helsing- a bit – than Stoker’s creation but consistently gruff. All in all, they haven’t got a chance against Dracula which creates splendid tension and a splendid irony only partly resolved at the end of the play.
This is a great show to watch, completely appropriate for Hallowe’en and splendidly acted. But another wonderful feature of the production is Kat Murray’s sound and light design, blackouts perfectly positioned, changing crepuscular lighting keeping the audience on the edge of their seats and the most complex atmospheric sound plot I have so far experienced at The Attic. Murray, for example, is accompanied several times by screams and loud noises, for example when Lucy is ‘asleep’. Because there is almost always some kind of soundtrack to complement the atmosphere and action, it is particularly powerful at the end of the play when Jonathan Harker is left momentarily without any soundtrack before it returns. We are left with the horror of the play firmly in mind as the curtain call is done in character.
This is a memorable Tread the Boards production, not to be missed. We have rarely had many guests at Moss Cottage before who have come to Stratford specifically to see a production at The Attic. This time we have had several and they have raved about it. Join them and you can be assured of a warm but unspooky welcome.