Review: Dracula - Mark Bruce Company

Performance: 26 November 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 3 December 2014

Jonathan Goddard and Kristin McGuire in 'Dracula'
Photo: Colin Hawkins

Performance reviewed: 26 November

Having seen the premiere of Mark Bruce’s Dracula at Wilton’s Music Hall, just over a year ago, it was fascinating to catch the end of this production’s long journey here at artsdepot in North Finchley, the penultimate of fifteen venues in a second nationwide tour that began in September. Although they both opened for business in 2004, it would be hard to find two more different theatres; the early noughties’ modernism of Finchley’s cultural hub, occupying a multi-purpose complex alongside a supermarket and a bus station, contrasting with the fraying gothic splendour of London’s last surviving Victorian Music Hall. Rarely can a venue have suited its theatrical subject quite so completely as that atmospheric pairing of Dracula at Wilton’s but it is pleasing to report that taking the vampires out of those distinctive and mysterious surroundings and putting them next to Aldi did nothing to diminish their chilling impact.

There have been a few cast changes and perhaps a little tinkering to the opening of the second act, but there is absolutely no reduction in the dramatic power of Bruce’s forensic exploration of the Bram Stoker novel, central to which is Jonathan Goddard’s gaunt and haunted account of the work’s titular anti-hero. Having clocked up around 50 performances as the blood-sucking Count, Goddard has probably spent more time as Dracula than Christopher Lee, and he seems to have arrived at a perfect balance in his reading of mannered, aristocratic evil, mixing refined taste with depraved humour. Stoker is said to have consolidated many influences in his development of the character, including Vlad the Impaler (a fifteenth century Wallachian Prince belonging to the House of Draculesti who was responsible for countless bloody executions); the flamboyant Victorian actor, Henry Irving (for whom Stoker was manager and confidante); and Oscar Wilde (another friend of the author). I know not what influences Goddard took for his interpretation, but it was suitably eclectic in its considerable range of expression.

The epistolary nature of the novel (ie it is essentially narrated through a succession of fictitious diary entries, letters, newspaper articles and suchlike) is also reflected in the structure of this danced drama, which takes episodes from the separate viewpoints of different characters, interleaving them to produce a flowing narrative. To simplify matters, Bruce has omitted two lead characters (Van Helsing, the vampire hunter, and Renfield, the lawyer turned asylum inmate who becomes a cipher for Dracula’s link to the human world once the action in the novel transfers to England) and the three suitors of Lucy Westenra are not named, appearing respectively as Doctor, Priest and Lord.

Set against these generic changes, Bruce incorporates many detailed references to specific incidents within the novel, such as Jonathan Harker’s journey into the Carpathian Mountains; the Russian boat captain being lashed to the wheel as the last member of the boat crew transporting Dracula to England; and the often-overlooked ability of Dracula to transform himself into a wolf as well as a vampire bat. The clarity of the narrative is an essential ingredient of this production’s theatrical success and much of this achievement must be due to the dramaturgical input of Lynda Radley.

Of equal significance is the effective – and often spectacular – visual impact derived from Phil Eddolls’ multi-purpose set designs, the superb lighting by Guy Hoare and Dorothy Brodrück’s evocative costumes. The wonderful horse and wolf head masks, making the characters appear like huge gothic chess pieces, by Pickled Image brought a significant bonus to the visual appeal. The early appearance of the wolves – as black-leather-jacketed hounds of hell – accompanying Dracula’s taking of a baby to feed to his vampire brides was chillingly effective (accompanied by baby cries and then the sound of a swarm of flies). There are simply too many impactful gothic horror vignettes to list, but for me the most effective of many great scenes is when a disguised Dracula drives Harker to his castle in a horse and carriage pursued by wolves. The concept of terrifying speed and threat is conveyed with the coach remaining stationery in a very special coup de theatre.

The value of all these extraordinarily well-integrated collaborations enhances Bruce’s choreography and his notably varied musical score, which integrates classical excerpts from Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Mozart and Ligetti with several pieces by the Soviet composer, Alfred Schnittke, who reworked simple tunes into the strangest of sounds and is also the main composer utilised by David Nixon in his version of Dracula currently being toured by Northern Ballet. In addition there are three bespoke Dracula themes composed by Bruce himself (one jointly with Chris Samuels who is credited with being the overall sound designer), the old Music Hall favourite Down at the Old Bull and Bush and Albert Whelan’s version of The Preacher and the Bear (a huge hit for Arthur Collins in the early twentieth century). There are notable eastern (especially Indian and Arabic) themes in the opening solo for Goddard and in the ensemble dance for the townspeople as Harker attempts to find transport to take him to Dracula’s Transylvanian castle. The music is an outstanding element throughout the production.

This is Goddard’s show. Of that there can be no doubt. He is completely transformed into Dracula from the moment of his haunted opening solo to the number that closes the work as Harker and his vampire hunters close the net around their prey. Nonetheless, there are excellent supporting performances throughout the small cast, notably from Kristen McGuire as Lucy Westenra, beginning with the comedic cameo of her three proposals of marriage, which include a rather charming song from Nicholas Cass-Beggs (as the Lord), and ending with her rather gruesome demise as a stake is hammered through her heart. In the novel, she is also beheaded and her mouth filled with garlic but we were excused from that!

Eleanor Duval gave a heartfelt account of Mina Harker and I enjoyed the contrast between the rather staid duet with her husband (nobly portrayed by Wayne Parsons) and the much more erotically seductive dance with Dracula. The three vampire brides – first encountered face down on their coffins – brought a further ongoing sense of eroticism in their roles as a kind of moving opera chorus threading through events. This reminds me to credit the excellent, seamless set changes throughout the piece – without a curtain being drawn – maintaining a steady flow of action from scene to scene. This was yet another ingredient of a great theatrical experience, which is without any weak link in the collaborative chain.

Having seen the work twice, I am confident that it is the most absorbing and satisfying piece of new narrative dance theatre made in the UK for several years. Although I struggle to imagine any other dancer in the title role, it deserves a bigger stage and the repertory lifespan of a vampire. Having seen it at two very different venues – and it worked so well in both – I’d love to see it at Sadler’s Wells. It is where it ought to be.

Catch Dracula at the Old Market, Brighton on 3 & 4 December:

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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