Review: Dracula

In Durham Castle’s Norman Chapel, the most appropriate of Gothic locales for one of literature’s most thrilling monsters, Castle Theatre Company’s production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a biting (!) success. As much as blood is sucked from the iconic vampire’s victims, so too in this production is blood restored to a tale which has, for many, not altogether survived the thinning filtrations of Hollywood.

Entering the chapel, it is impossible not to be impressed by the room itself, which is far older even than the original Dracula novel. Its age, coupled with the lighting fixtures arranged amongst the walls and the pillars, conjure a sense of the past hauled into the present for close inspection; Director Sophie Boddington’s desire to “rekindle […] the original terror” of Stoker’s novel begins to materialise almost immediately.

Consistently-impressive is the band which, packed into one of the chapel’s corners, reproduces with uncanny accuracy the eerie sound of Hollywood’s silent era, recalling Dracula’s own cinematic adaptations as well as horror movie classics such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. With just two violins (Millie Harding and Beth Zheng), a viola (David Millross) and a cello (Rosa Bruce), Musical Director Samuel Abel’s small but fiercely-effective orchestra punctuates the action and quickens our pulses with unsettling ease.

The performances in this production are seamless and convincing. As the titular Count, Kyle Kirkpatrick’s is in part a clichéd characterisation–but this phrase somehow offers less justice than the performance deserves. His Dracula doesn’t shy away from playing with the quintessential Dracula-isms that are familiar to most of us–the feral hissing, the sweeping capes, and the aristocratic airs and graces–but these moments only strengthen the gravity of the performance. When we see him turn the corner and creep towards the stage, it is difficult to remain settled. With dutiful attention and direction, Kirkpatrick returns imposition to the character, and testifies both that there is life left in the shared imagination of what Count Dracula must look and be like, and also that there are avenues less-explored for the character which could prove just as effective.

Also arresting is Renfield (Harry Twining), whose (quite literally) toe-curling performance seems to put the room on edge. Gothic theatre is renowned often for its assault of the senses, and Twining’s scenes most frequently produce this physical repulsion: the scraping of fingernails across the chapel’s stone pillars, the spitting of water over himself (and over my notes, to my surprise, although this only added to the tense punch of the scene), combined with the poetic repulsiveness of the character’s language make for a very memorable performance.

Other standout performers include Francesca Chaplin as Florrie Hathersage, and Keir Mulcahey as protagonist Jonathan Harker–both are consistent, nuanced, and bring a welcome reality and depth to their roles, which deftly anchors the production as a whole.

As the sisters Mina and Lucy Westerman, Grace Brimacombe-Rand and Freya Hall are also commendable, and show an impressive ability to navigate their characters through quite a tumultuous series of events. John Duffet’s Van Helsing, at times, borders on campy, and is occasionally overstated–but rather than an inconsistency, this is more a relief from the weight of the narrative. Sophie Cullis juggles with no less than four characters which, while not always completely distinct from one another, are performed with vigorous conviction.

Running just shy of three hours (including a fifteen-minute interval), the production is something of a stake-out (ha), but to say that this detracts from the enjoyment would be a grave (ha) mistake. Boddington, and Assistant Director Oshy Ray, make a great effort to reintroduce unease and threat to the legend of vampirism, and there is true progress made here. Technically, the production takes advantage of its location through its smart lighting design; any room of such architectural Gothicism is a sight to behold when lit up in red, but especially so if it is playing host to a Gothic performance of its own. Whites of varying warmth swirl amongst disorienting colours to make ragged any distinctions we might try to make between the various realities that are conjured, gradually fusing them together.

It is truly a rare treat to see successful and refreshing adaptations of texts which have enjoyed (or endured) so many iterations over the years. See this one while you can.

Castle Theatre Company’s production of Dracula continues Friday 16th and Saturday 17th at 8pm in the Norman Chapel at Durham Castle.

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