Dracula (shake & stir theatre co & QPAC)
QPAC, Cremorne Theatre
August 13 – September 4
‘Another bloody classic’ is how shake & stir’s “Dracula” has been aptly marketed. And certainly there is a lot of blood in the company’s retelling of Bram Stoker’s now legendary 1897 novel. But there is also much more as the multi-award winning company brings a finesse to the fright.
“Dracula” represents shake & stir’s most technical show, a fact that that is easily appreciated upon view of the stage. However, this is a view not granted upon entry into the theatre whose stage remains shrouded in misty darkness until the show begins with the boom of the vampire’s menacing prologue. Indeed, this is a “Dracula” full of atmosphere thanks to its bold staging and Guy Webster’s electrifying, eerie sound design. Lighting represents some of Jason Glenwright’s best work. As white light pours through windows and doors to puncture the darkness, a sense of space is created that belies that Cremorne theatre’s small stage. Of most significance, however, is the versatility afforded by use of a large revolving stage, complete with tall stairwell to assist in creating a range of settings, including some for conversations high above the audience. Leigh Buchanan’s costumes, heavy in ornamentation and layers, also contribute considerably to the authentic aesthetic. And Dracula’s coat is simply majestic and sure to be the envy of everyone with a Gothic sensibility.
No member of the cast disappoints. As Jack Seward, Ross Balbuziente delivers the appropriately formal dialogue with aplomb and when attacked by Dracula, Lucy (Ashlee Lollback) and Mina (Nellie Lee) respond with reactions that represent fusion of fear and desire, in keeping with the reading of the text’s portrayal of vampirism as a metaphor for sexuality in the repressive Victoria era in which the novel was written. However, ultimately this is Nick Skubij’s show, despite being barely present in the second half of the play. The portrayal of one of the most famous characters in popular culture, could easily tip into the territory of parody, however, this is far from the case. His performance as a brooding, sinister title character and primary antagonist is entirely riveting, adding a fearful chill to the show’s highly-charged atmosphere as he creeps around the darkened corners of the stage, sometimes appearing in the glimmer of half-light as if from nowhere to startle the audience and characters alike.
The story is of young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Tim Dashwood) who visits Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains. Alone and trapped within the castle walls, he discovers that his host Dracula wants more than just his presence at the dinner table. Leaving Jonathan and his castle behind, Dracula travels to London on a quest for seduction, true love and above all blood. And while remaining true to its origins, this “Dracula” is a mastery of theatrical momentum, emphasising intense emotion as the source of aesthetic experience as it brings to life the moments so vividly described in the novel. The suspense, although prevailing, is tempered by some superbly choreographed action, including a fantastic fight scene, and there are even some surprise comic comments courtesy of David Whitney’s deadpan delivery of Van Helsing’s observations.
Although Bram Stoker did not invent the vampire, he defined its modern form, to the risk of audience members being potentially de-sensitised to the story’s original horror. However, this is a risk without realisation in this version, which is, rather, a fitting, gripping tribute to this classic Gothic text. The production is uncompromising and uncomfortable (#inagoodway). The design is stylish, yet also conveys an overwhelming horror to creep into your bones, sure to satisfy audience members wishing to sink their teeth into this flirtation with the dark side. And it is easy to see why the season has already been extended, including for a unique midnight show experience (#ifyoudare).