No character has been around the pop culture block more than Count Dracula, who’s so familiar that he tends to be the punch line of jokes told by younger, hipper vampire characters. It would be easy to imagine that a theatrical production of Dracula could hold little sway over modern audiences. In fact, while the familiarity of the figure is given more than a nod or two here – from the way the Count says, “Good eeeeefening” when he makes his first entrance to costuming in a black and red cloak – what emerges in this amateur production is just how fresh some of the ideas in this not-so-fresh play now seem. Everything old is new again.
I should point out that this is not Bram Stoker’s theatrical adaptation of his own novel but a play written by Hamilton Deane in 1927 (with additions by John L. Balderston) based on that novel. This is the play that became a Broadway hit starring Bela Lugosi and spawned countless cinematic interpretations.
This is a boldly staged production. The simple set is very effective; all angled black columns and atmospheric sconce lighting. The front door of Dr Seward’s house, in which nearly all the action of the play takes place, is sometimes lit with an electric blue or a blood red, according to what’s happening in the story. Flowers are used to macabre effect – white lilies, red roses and then black lilies – and eerie onstage musical accompaniment is provided by a mournful cellist (Anica Boulanger-Mashberg).
Things are little slow to start, there’s a bit of exposition to get through, but by the time the play hits its pace we know we’re in for a fun evening. This version of the story has been updated to 1927, so the characters are rather more knowing and self-aware than in the Victorian original. Dr Seward runs a sanatorium for the mentally infirm, in which the most entertaining patient is the ‘zoo- phagous’ (‘life-eating’) Renfield (Matt Wilson). Seward has a daughter, Lucy (Jess Lewis-Shaw), whose dearest friend, Mina, has just died of a mysterious anaemia-like illness. Now Lucy has developed the same affliction and Seward relies upon the imminent arrival of his old professor, Van Helsing, who has been summoned to consult. The only bright spot in all this is the solicitude of a new neighbour, a charming foreign Count (Nick Falk).
Ivano del Pio plays Dr Seward for laughs and is appropriately befuddled. As Van Helsing, Mike Edwards is not the wild-eyed zealot you might expect: he’s rather world-weary and seems no match for Dracula. This is emphasised in a deliciously sadistic scene where the Count torments Van Helsing by delivering a soliloquy about the relative merits of wine vs blood as Van Helsing, seemingly having a heart attack, reaches in vain for a reviving glass of wine.
Van Helsing’s weakness here is interesting. There’s a line about, “It’s always smarter to side with the strong” (meaning Dracula) -- a reference to the rise of fascism? This is a play in which the evil characters have all the fun and the good are mostly ineffectual and confused (although they somehow get things done). Is this how the writers saw the world in the late 1920s?
Jess Lewis-Shaw, as Lucy, must go from innocent miss to vampiric mistress and she tackles the challenge with gusto. Eli Halliwell is likeable in the sometimes stuffy role of Jonathon Harker, Lucy’s fiancé. Jessica Davis is note perfect as the rebellious maid, Wells (and it’s a pity her character doesn’t get to do more) while Steven Jones, as the put-upon man servant Butterworth, is a cockney delight.
Matt Wilson makes a devious yet charming Renfield, kicking his legs in the air like a spider or jumping up on furniture to make mad declarations. As Count Dracula Nick Falk skates a fine line between drama and parody. His accent is daft but not too daft. With his imposing physique and swept-back blonde hair, Falk is not your typical Dracula, and yet he is everything the role needs to be: intelligent, urbane, while pitiless and brutal.
What lifts this production above the average is the care and attention with which it’s been directed by Robert Jarman. There are some beautifully inventive moments, from the scene where Jonathon and Lucy share an embrace that becomes more of a threesome with the Count (he’s controlling Lucy through hypnosis, which is represented by having him stand behind Jonathon) to having Dracula’s creepy long fingers sneaking around corners ahead of his body. There’s also the use of fantastic old-time stage effects: you haven’t lived till you’ve seen Dracula with a remote controlled red-eyed bat fluttering above the stage!
The Playhouse Theatre is the ideal setting for this play and the lighting design, including copious amounts of smoke as required, creates a striking mood. The Dracula story has endured because it’s full of good stuff – gothic stylings, double entendres, psychological humour, games with gender and sexuality – and all these are evident here. Jarman’s appreciation of the material is evident in every aspect of this lovingly staged production.
Hobart Repertory Theatre Society presents
Adapted for the stage by Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston
Directed by Robert Jarman
Venue: The Playhouse, Bathurst Street, Hobart
Dates: 12 - 27 February 2010
Times: Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm
Matinee: 20 February @ 2pm
Bookings: Centertainment 6234 5998