Edinburgh Fringe 2016
The actor Max Shreck, known to most only as the terrifying Count Orlok in F W Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’, recounts his real life and career and how this one role became a double-edged sword.
I feel this piece has the right space at Sweet Venues. It is large enough to perform but intimate enough to be unsettling. The audience entered the space to find a stool, bench and a large printed image of Shreck’s shadow ascending the staircase – one of the most iconic Gothic horror images of all time – hanging from the back. It is a literal metaphor; no matter what Shreck has achieved in his career, that spectre is all he is known for today.
Writer and sole performer Michael Daviot enters and immediately commands a fascinatingly seductive yet chilling presence. His look as he glares into the space has shades of Elsa Lanchester discovering her environment in ‘The Bride Of Frankenstein’. I would be surprised if it’s not deliberate. Tall and slim, and with an incredibly powerful and commanding bass voice and a face reminiscent of a less benevolent Michael Crawford, Daviot almost dares you to look away. You don’t want to.
Quite quickly, he breaks into song. It seems immediately jarring with its Brechtian tones (it is actually from a show Shreck performed by Erika Mann) but sets a fine atmosphere of a decadent Germany from between the wars. With a voice so powerful, the music could have done with being a little louder. As the show progresses, you become familiar with the devices. He will break off into perfectly performed vignettes that the real Max Shreck played on stage and in films. He also frequently inserts lines of text from the ‘Nosferatu’ movie which initially seem out of place but you eventually realise are extremely well-chosen chapter headings to the next episode of his life story.
This text is poetically written and beautifully performed. I feel an actor writing for themselves is no bad thing; they know what sounds correct for them to deliver. For a subject some may regard as niche (an otherwise obscure German actor from almost 100 years ago) the material is remarkably accessible. However, I am sure an interest in film history – or indeed Germany in the pre-WW2 period – will be a bonus to any audience member.
Daviot engages occasionally with people directly. It feels almost an honour when he addresses you. His focus never slips and he is remarkably versatile. The series of brief impersonations he portrays in a potted history of later roles are all perfect, and Shreck played 800 theatre roles and played in 50 films. Far from being the actual horrifying vampire portrayed by Willem Dafoe in the film ‘Shadow Of The Vampire’, we learn very quickly that Max Shreck was a highly respected and much-loved professional of his time. He explains as succinctly and convincingly as any apology you could hear why he did not play an active role against the Third Reich when so many of his colleagues were being victimised.
I found myself wanting to hear more about the making of ‘Nosferatu’ – the pieces we were given were fascinating. Perhaps, given Bram Stoker’s widow’s court ruling to have all copies destroyed (apart from that one surviving copy which is solely responsible for his name still being known today), there is hardly a wealth of information available about shooting it. However, Deviot clearly knows his history – it is very detailed and you are left in little doubt about his admiration for the man.
He chooses to deliver Goethe’s ‘Erlkonig’ in its original German late in the play. Thankfully, an English translation is provided and it is a risky venture that pays off. The sound of the dark piece is so much more disturbing in its intended language.
Deviot chose the name for this piece well. ‘Nosferatu’s Shadow’ is a pun; the literal one of the aforementioned movie image, and then the real heart of this show: the fact that Max Shreck was an accomplished actor, famous in his era, and that all he is known for today is playing one of the most terrifying fictional characters of all time because of a chance survival. He may not have lived under Nosferatu’s shadow, but he remains dead beneath it.
Michael Deviot is a superb actor and this is a tour-de-force.