Brighton Fringe 2015
Award winning company in association with Oran Mor Glasgow and the Romanian Cultural Institute. Playwright Richard Crane (National Theatre, Royal Court), director Faynia Williams (National Theatre Mongolia & Romania, BBC Producer, Opera Royal Albert Hall ). Comedy, tragedy, radical theatre; a story that resonates globally today. Gothic performance in a new gothic space.
Meet Vlad the Impaler, prince, leader, folk hero, monster. Enter Romania in the 1400s.
This is, indeed, gothic horror, with a pinch of Hammer Horror and a touch of Becket and Python as two impaled, condemned souls banter from tree to tree. That quality is a huge virtue of the piece – there’s an ease to it, carried in the playfulness of the script – a script that occasionally swaggers, only to then sharpen its stake and stab a line right into we, the audience, the witnesses, the colluders and the people. That ease is also carried in the manner of the actors; Jack Klaff has an affability in his cruelty that adds a shiver to his shocking deeds and words. This reminded me of Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List – a mock sanity, a warm greeting that precedes an order to execute. The chill of this type of murderer lies in his ability to be simultaneously in the middle-normal and also at the extremes. The psychopath who is also hero, the serial killer who is also the loving father or king. That gothic motif was ever present in Vincent Price, in Voldemort, in the apparent politeness of a Joseph Mengele. It’s here too – Vlad is an enigma, an affable devil – with a temper waiting in the wings.
Was Vlad a hero, a cult leader of the people who ultimately died for them? Or was he a sadist, a man who took pleasure in the pain of others, even unto the use of the impaling stick – for fun?
This production fuses history with humour, dark gothic horror with swipes at modern wiles. If we judge Vlad, do we not also judge our hero despots of the twentieth and even twenty-first century? I muse upon this because it is just this that is in the mix of Vlad the Impaler. We are in the 14th Century and yet we are immersed in our now as well. The Turk, the Hungarians, imprisonment, release and decapitation – it’s all been happening roughly on the same territory in the last decade. That’s part of the cleverness of this production – it is simply well timed!
The cast perform well with a script that is top-heavy with historical fact and plenty of political polemic. But there’s enough licence taken with the forms of drama and storytelling to allow the piece to flow and to allow the narrative to dart here and there without losing an undercurrent of a through line. War is coming to Romania. The piece has an anarchy about it, but so did the times it portrays. Armies marched across Europe and Romania found itself slap bang in the middle, paying tribute on the one hand to the Turk, and annoying the western bulwark on the other side. This is all evoked successfully and within seconds of the lights going up. It reminded me of the anarchic writing of Michael Moorcock, and that is intended as praise.
I can imagine some reviewers might criticise Vlad the Impaler for being a bit chaotic or hard to follow. But that is to miss the point. This production offers you your own opportunity to assemble the puzzle before you and it certainly offers you plenty of material to work with. Even the staging respects neither fourth wall nor proscenium arch for very long. It’s an immersive piece that doesn’t mind un-immersing us from time to time and telling us off for being an audience.
I enjoyed all of this shilly-shallying. It created dark comedy, moments of horror, a chance to reflect and also to savour some fine acting that needs to refine as the run continues. It is certainly coarse and feels a bit unfinished in places.
But Vlad the Impaler offers us a collaborative story for we have to add our own colour to it as a listening, watching, wondering audience. History here isn’t offered neat and tidy, cut and dried; it is offered unfinished, open, dripping with blood and shifted blame. That makes it a very recommendable show on the Fringe. Vlad the Impaler is bold, fun, funny, disturbing, witty, messy for good reasons and, ultimately, entertaining. I think this is just how stories would have been told and shown back then.