Friday, February 13, 2015

'Dracula' at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre, 12th February 2015

Count Dracula is an immortal in every sense of the word. Never dying, never ageing and always hungry he stalks the dark alleys of popular culture, forever on the lookout for a comely maiden with a swan neck, rosy cheeks and repressed sexual urges. Since he burst into the public consciousness he's proved an astonishingly malleable figure, neatly slotting into any situation, genre or aesthetic and still maintain his essential Dracula-ness.

This Dracula, adapted and directed by Simon James Collier, heads back to the source material, essentially recreating the text of Stoker's novel on stage. So we have trainee solicitor Jonathan Harker (Mark Lawson) dispatched to Transylvania to deal with a real client from hell. Leaving behind his beloved fiancĂ©e Mina (Josephine Rattigan) he heads off on the first tide, meeting superstitious peasants as he heads towards a foreboding castle.

This is the home of the louche and diabolical Count Dracula (Cristinel Hogas). He's hatching a plan to move out of this drafty old castle and into livelier London digs. Harker, apprehensive from minute one, tries to quickly get through his conveyancing work as well as giving advice on the finer points of British etiquette and society. Initially expecting to be there for two weeks, time drags on and Harker begins to lose his mind, plagued by paranoia and disturbed by the Count's apparent infatuation with Mina.

Cristinel Hogas as Count Dracula
By Act 2 Dracula has come to England and begun munching his way through Harker's social circle. He begins with Mina's best friend, the lovely Lucy (Connie Jackson), gradually transforming her from prim and proper society lady to nymphomaniacal creature of the night. Mina, teaming up with Doctor John Seward, Lucy's fiancĂ© Arthur (Anthony Matteo), a slightly traumatised Harker and the eccentric Prof. Van Helsing (Mitch Howell), then resolve to put an end to Dracula's campaign of neck molestation.

One problem that any adaptation of the original Dracula has to overcome is that nearly all the good guys are boring stuff-shirts. Jonathan Harker in particular is a limp rag of a protagonist, wrapped up in manners and exceedingly English politeness, able to be shoved around by the domineering Count Dracula. Mina is similarly two-dimensional, her character a blandly safe conception of presentable femininity. The less said about Arthur and Dr Seward the better (mainly because I can't think of anything to say about them).

Let's just say there's a reason this book is called Dracula and not The Adventures of Jonathan Harker, trainee solicitor. Intensely erotic, the titular character combines exotic sophistication, sexual liberation and eternal youth - all anathema to Victorian sensibilities and - let's face it - still pretty unBritish in 2015. Also on the fun side of the equation are the entertainingly pulpy Van Helsing (always a licence for a spot of over-acting) and the bug-eating Renfield (Grant Leat).

So it's a shame that much of this stage adaptation focuses on the boring characters, who spend most of the play spouting clunky exposition and imploring each other to behave sensibly. Buttoned up in both shirts and spirits, these bourgeois, unimaginative creeps are extraordinarily easy to dislike. This isn't helped by some rather leaden acting. Jonathan Harker is a notoriously thankless role, yet even bearing that in mind Mark Lawson plays him so wooden they could probably fashion a stake out of him.

Things get somewhat better whenever Dracula's about. Cristinel Hogas, looking a little like mid-90s Trent Reznor, is convincing as a predatory immortal. Hailing from Romania, Hogas' natural accent brings a natural delicacy to the role, preventing caricature "Ve vant to suck your blood!" silliness. This Dracula proves to be a rather likeable baddie, attractive, curious and intelligent. It's easy to sympathise with the guy when he explains: "I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is.", lines which Hogas delivers with childlike wonder and enthusiasm. Thing is, he's so nice that we never get to see the monster within - he doesn't even have fangs as far as I could tell!

That aside, Hogas is undoubtedly fun to watch, swooping, posing, pouting and deploying his cheekbones to maximum effect. He's so compelling  that when he's offstage the play becomes somewhat muted. Unfortunately this means most of the second half, when the limitations of Victorian horror quickly become apparent. Despite an heroic effort by Howell's Van Helsing, watching the cast deal with the predations of an offstage Dracula wasn't the most thrilling hour of theatre I've ever seen (though Ella Garland in a variety of supporting roles brings a Hammer Horror A-game).

Mitch Howelll's immensely fun Van Helsing
It's also here that the play can't quite decide whether it's playing it straight or going for camp comedy. There's some obviously silly jokes: a mimed stagecoach chase could be out of a Monty Python routine, and the dispatching of the vampire Lucy is played for gross-out laughs. But we jerkily switch gears between comedy and drama to dislocating effect, the audience never quite sure when we should be laughing and when we should be taking this seriously. Personally I prefer the campy scenes, poking fun at the uptight Victorians and their fear of poetry-spouting, romantic Europeans seducing their blushing brides.

Set design is perfunctory but elevated by effective lighting design from Michael Edwards. There's one striking moment where a backlit Dracula looms from an open door, instantly defining him as magisterial, supernatural and all-powerful. The set is helped by liberal use of a mist machine, which periodically cloaks the stage in a thick vampire-concealing haze that works gangbusters in creating a mysterious atmosphere.  

Ultimately this adaptation is hamstrung by hewing too closely to the source material. What thrilled Victorian readers is either too camp or too dull for modern audiences. Hogas' Dracula is a welcome stage presence, but his disappearance after the interval throws the boring characters, plodding dialogue and slow narrative into sharp focus. Slightly more egregiously, the show is practically blood-free. Frankly, a Dracula that decides against showing us the Count with blood dripping down his chin is being wilfully precious.

In simply re-enacting Bram Stoker's novel the show misses an opportunity to explore the relevance of the book's themes today, making this adaptation (literally) defanged and bloodless.


Dracula is at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 15 March. Tickets here.

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