Friday, 8 July 2016

Dracula - Murdoch Theatre Company (7 July 2016)

In the pantheon of fictional creations there are few as exotic and fearsome as the grandest of the Undead, the most famous Vampire of them of all, Dracula. It is a name that immediately conjures images of blood drenched horror and the seductive allure of immortality hideously perverted. Like the timeless character itself that can turn into mist or bat or wolf, the vampire legend evolves and mutates over the generations and across formats. It is a myth I have always loved and certainly a favourite of Hollywood’s even from its earliest days.

With the saturation of such supernatural creatures in today’s multi-media formats, however, something of the essence of the story and its origins has been lost. This is where director John King and the Murdoch Theatre Company come in with a traditional interpretation from a script nearly a hundred years old. It will be immediately familiar to anyone who has read Bram Stoker’s masterful novel. To a newer audience it sets out the foundation for all the elements on which the myth rests. If you’re expecting Twilight or Blade or Underworld or True Blood or any of their ilk you might be disappointed as this faithful adaptation eschews all the subversions and perversions that have bombarded our screens, small and large. But each one of those owes a huge debt to where it all began...

... in a sanatorium where Lucy Seward (Toni Vernon) is beset by an ailment her father Doctor Seward (Stephen Platt) and fiancé Jonathan Harker (Philip Hutton) are baffled by. A patient, Renfield (Rhys Hyatt) is also under assault for his very soul as his Master, the mysterious Dracula (Joel Sammels), compels obedience from afar. In desperation Seward summons Abraham Van Helsing (Jason Dohle) to save his daughter. The Professor diagnoses a condition beyond imagining and the hunt is soon on to destroy the very things that leave the rapacious Dracula free to feed on Lucy. But the Vampire, assisted by his beguiling brides and human pawns, is a formidable foe not easily bested.

Like any good gothic horror tale mood and atmosphere is vitally important and this is where the productions excels. The multi-level set is exquisitely dressed and lit to represent the offices of the sanatorium and later, with impressive efficiency, the underground lair where Dracula’s resting place is hidden. There is a real sense of old world charm and naivety where the still fledgling disciplines of science and medicine are no match for such an ancient foe. The dialogue, at times heavily expositional and a little twee to modern ears, works because it is placed precisely in that environment. These people are discovering a terrible reality for the first time.

Great attention has been spent on the details to make this world credible from costuming to props and makeup. There was only a minor moment where my suspension of disbelief was broken but a mirror on set was always going to be problematic with a creature such as Dracula that is meant to cast no reflection. Otherwise this exudes atmosphere and the lighting design by Scott McArdle is an example of how a film literate generation can add so much to the stage. Some of Dracula’s entrances, backlit and silhouetted in smoke, are perfectly composed ‘shots’. They are both menacing and sumptuous to look at which is no small feat. The same with the writhing brides who loom above the main set in all their sensuous and intimidating glory. Composer Drew Krapljanov adds the finishing touch with a score that buttresses the intrigue of the slow burn first act before turning the screws on the urgency of the final confrontation.

To the performances and Sammels makes for a charismatic and scornful Dracula and I especially liked the physicality of his movement when hemmed in by Wolfsbane as if he were a feral animal. Hutton is a most upright and proper Harker in his formal dinner attire with hands often interlaced behind the small of his back. It’s a tightly controlled characterisation that was fascinating to watch. Platt was too earnest for mine as Seward and just needs to relax into the role. There were times he was prone to over emphasis in the delivery of dialogue but in fairness some of his lines are of the “good god, man!” variety which are difficult to convey convincingly.

Vernon’s petite stature helps immeasurably in presenting a woman who is fragile and emotionally vulnerable after the nightly draining of blood. The transformation from anaemic victim to threshold vampire is an entertaining one as her Lucy, now in red, is confident and forceful in ways poor Harker cannot contend with.

Rhianna Hall and Alex McVey play a housemaid and attendant respectively and share a funny set piece scene in the first half that breaks the tension and allows the audience to laugh. McVey, in particular, adds belly laughs throughout as his Butterworth struggles to deal with the seemingly superhuman Renfield. It’s a critical counterpoint to the serious business of stakes through hearts and lives in the balance. Jess Serio, Christie Strauss and Jenia Gladziejewski are the irresistible vampire brides who look awesome and add that touch of sensuality to proceedings.

Then there’s Jason Dohle as Van Helsing, the famous professor armed with the knowledge and courage to confront the vampire. Dohle is charming, inquisitive, insistent and determined while showing a softer side when dealing with Lucy. Armed with Wolfsbane (instead of garlic in an interesting touch) and an eastern European accent he drives the action and is a most robust protagonist. Hyatt has perhaps the trickiest part of all as the crazed Renfield swings in and out of lucidity depending on the hold of his Master. It’s a busy performance that flirts with caricature but ultimately won me over, notably in the moment Hyatt allows us to see Renfield’s sudden realisation of his fate.

The first half takes a while to swing into gear and that scene between Hall and McVey really kick started the production for me. The second half picks up the pace and King builds the tension as we wonder how our heroes will triumph. It’s a testament to all involved that while most of the action takes place off stage this dialogue heavy script is still so compelling. It’s a great start to The Gothics Trilogy and there is a smart and funny coda at the end that leaves the audience eager for the next instalment.

Dracula, written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston and directed by John King, is on 7.30pm tonight and Saturday 9 July at the Nexus Theatre on the Murdoch University campus.

*photos by EClaire Photography

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