One of the production photographs on display was, admitted Hull Truck's press officer, "a bit Bouncers-ish". The shot, of three men in a row in modern suits, raised insane fears that John Godber and Jane Thornton's stage adaptation of Dracula would be laced with brash announcements such as "Van Helsing's Third Speech!"
The reality is much more thoughtful. In opting for modern dress, a stage bare save for a ladder, a few pieces of luggage and the obligatory coffin, and a complete absence of prominent canines, the adaptors and director Graham Watts have deliberately decided to let the horror emerge from the story and its performance rather than falling back on accidentals of presentation. The trouble is that it works fitfully at best.
This may be in part because, after a century of retellings, the Dracula tale is grown familiar; but if so, why does our appetite for it persist? More probably, the decision to downplay the spookiness has resulted in a production which is just too prosaic. As Jonathan Harker, Dominic Curtis peppers his lines with casual, un-Victorian "you know"s and "I mean"s; Steven Alvey is a youthful Van Helsing who seldom conveys the sense of the Professor as a driven man becoming engaged in a kind of duel with the Count.
Robert Angell makes a commanding Count Dracula, devoid of accent or any of the sinister gestures of an infernal Jarvis Cocker, his discreetly black-varnished nails the only outward sign of strangeness. He is even more impressive as the zoöphagous lunatic Renfield, steering so well clear of the grotesque that in his pivotal scene with Mina Harker (Zoe Lucker) he even attains a curious nobility.
But the doubling (the play is presented with its cast of six constantly onstage) raises further problems. For long stretches this is Dracula without the Count. His absence is most apparent in the central sexual aspect of the horror, that of Mina's fascinated attraction to Dracula. Although we see Jonathan's ravishment by the Count's handmaidens, and Melissa Collier is every inch the siren as a vampirised Lucy, the main strand of sexual tension is scarcely alluded to until, halfway through the second act, Mina is discovered torridly licking the nipple of her undead lover. Such a sudden injection of sensuality, rather than the necessary graduated dosage, fails to change the mood as intended for the final Transylvanian episodes.
The staging also frequently works counter to its own intentions. Carl Hogarth's fine score shares the sombre majesty of Popol Vuh's soundtrack to Werner Herzog's film Nosferatu, but here cuts out an instant before every dramatic highpoint. The effect is not to leave these moments thrillingly naked, but just to create a series of anticlimaxes. The final battle between the Count and his three male pursuers, staged in slow motion under red lighting and strobes, is let down by languid physical work. And it is little wonder that the rosary worn by Mina affords her scant supernatural protection, since it carries not a crucifix but an ankh.
As the two-hour show progresses, Godber and Thornton's fundamental decision causes them ever greater difficulties, which the production exacerbates. What should have been a modern Symphonie des Grauens ends up a sonata in grey.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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