Brighton Year-Round 2021
Directed by Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook for Identity Theatre. Props by Identity Theatre and Southwark Players. Costume and vintage camera Milla Hills, dress and photography and Miles Davies. Lighting BOAT tech Gary Cook and company – Cook’s also creator of eerie soundscapes with myNoise. The company roll out fairy lights later. Ria Fay’s singer/arranger of ‘Boys of Bedlam’. Till July 24th.
Liz Lochhead’s always a poet and dramatist to dovetail blood and visceral power into her work. Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off is a typical title. Here a dramatist she feasts on all the blood and dovetailing you could wish for in her 1985 version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula.
Directed by Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook for Identity Theatre, Dracula marks a joyously dark return to BOAT after being cancelled in 2020.
BOAT’s open-air horse-shoe promotes scenery-islands. So props include a homely site with downstage-left a rug and domestic items, and downstage-right – bit comparative here – there’s an asylum cell where official madman Renfield is rope-tethered and visited/tortured by doctor, warder and two nurses in one body (explain later!). Upstage an imposing shimmery-black promontory: onyx island in a green stream, concealing trap doors, long-awaited. Castle Dracula’s end.
Fine late-Victorian costume tends to beige silk, reds and – black. That and the vintage camera (you’ll smile) are from Milla Hills, further dress via Miles Davies. Lighting’s BOAT tech and co-director Gary Cook who’s also creator of eerie soundscapes with myNoise. The company roll out fairy lights later. Ria Fay’s singer/arranger of ‘Boys of Bedlam’.
Let’s say you know the tale. Lochhead streamlines so Doctor Arthur Seward not offstage Quincy becomes doomed Lucy Westerman’s fiancé. Which helps as his patient Renfield as well as asylum is vectored to the main plot around the Westerman sisters, where elder Minna’s fiancé (afflicted with Long Engagement Syndrome) Jonathan Harker is sent by his employer to Dracula Castle to treat with the Count about Heartfield Hall in nearby Whitby. The Count wants to infest sorry invest in it and move there. Whereupon Harker’s detained charmingly against his will for a month. Renfield has previous with the Count, not much explained by Stoker and Lochhead is saying keep up so we will.
Lochhead’s version works here, since Renfield escapes to warn Minna and the second time he arrives he’s brought as a servant bent to Dracula’s will as decoy; so Minna lets him in. Only for Renfield to break free one final time.
Lochhead focuses on the domestic, building up Westermans’ servant Florrie Heathersage, badinaging over modern women not wanting to treat her as a servant. ‘I’ll still have my wages?’ Bee Mitchell-Turner’s Heathersage asks. When Lucy blithely asks her to change those morbid lilies. No change in fin-de-siecle trustafarians then.
Lochhead’s comedy here dissipates dread, which works in Shakespeare as plangent islets (think Lady Macduff’s son or ‘what, you egg?’). In a festal space in sun-slanting midsummer how invoke dread?
Lochhead jolts. Literally. Stoker prided himself on 1897’s latest – proving progress useless against ancient evils: recording equipment, telegrams – added very effectively by Lochhead in Heathersage’s case. Though Heathersage can’t read it; even if telegrams weren’t then used about soldiers. Renfield though is referred to as a paranoid schizophrenic, when the term schizophrenia wasn’t used till 1911. And ECT’s jumped in, not used till 1938. Lochhead’s lazy here; there were equivalent terms.
Lochhead like many makes Minna and Lucy sisters too. That bonds them with Lucy in Minna’s care, proximity, guilt, literally blood. Stoker should’ve thought of it. Great touches of sexy younger sis (18 to Minna’s 25) as Heloise Bliss vamps in a crimson/black bodice-ripper, opposed to soberly-attired Mina (black and deep silks), in Ria Fay’s depiction.
Elsewhere Harker second-son-of-baronet fagged at school for poor scholarship boy Dr Seward, bringing their (again class-ridden) backstory together, with Seward as workaholic smitten by Lucy when finally dragged away; and playing sceptic to old boss Van Helsing’s ‘there are more things’ routine with vampires. Throughout Lochhead promotes kinship to tighten bonds and bloodlines and start a few class-wars (Harker calling Seward snob, Heathersage pointing up Lucy’s privileged ‘egalitarian’ hypocrisy). She points up misogyny so gleefully one director watching suggests Lochhead might be herself. No, subversively bolshie. But she’ll have her fun too which can create havoc.
Sheridan and Cook are challenged with a brilliantly-plotted script making cogency of Stoker’s fragments with jump-cuts too, and comic homely-truth-maidservant interludes (a journey for Heathersage) that pulls from terror and into Nellie Dean from IT’s last (2019) production of Wuthering Heights. It’s summer outdoors. Vampires do matiness though how will evenings kill them?
The cast, credited with many ideas, brighten (or rightly darken) this production reminding us of IT’s professional-level outstanding shows: Blue Remembered Hills (2017) The Crucible (2018) and yes Wuthering Heights. Bee Mitchell-Turner adorns them, here as Heathersage (and one Bride, covering for a cast member who had to pull out) whose vocal quality is so distinctive it won’t need the micing up all receive here – a good production decision given ambience.
Mitchell-Turner points up Heathersage’s sharp good sense, loyalty to a fault (‘remove this garlic!’), anti-bullshit detection. Her accent and poise also works supremely in a moment of personal crisis. Heathersage can’t read but the fact of a telegram – anachronistically from the War Office, but they existed in 1897 and it’s a great touch – is exquisitely painful. Mitchell-Turner conveys the woe of someone against ‘greater’ ones of her betters in a tightening bud of grief.
As noted, Fay’s also singer/arranger of ‘Boys of Bedlam’ a performance of pure stark lament. She too works in pose, her voice in character arcs small and anxious till explosive moments. She also holds the stage, can berate Kane Magee’s Harker and Sam Razavi’s Seward. Her shame later and emotional conflicts project convincingly. Fay also melts, conveying a newly-released sexuality on her honeymoon. Her stand-off prior to this, juddering self-hatred later stamps her journey.
Bliss too is engaging vocally, vamps fluidly as she flares across the stage. She and Fay interact well; Bliss’s response to others is pointed. She looks seductive and desolate, her vamped-to scenes almost X-rated. Once she closes off a trap-door which might allow a sinking-in. But within those trap doors there’s later a spectacular explosion of blood – great credit to the team here. Bliss makes staking the act of (phallocentric) consummation it is with a wild shriek.
Magee’s Harker inhabits Harker’s gawky diffidence. He centres himself against Seward, scores well off Razavi here, though challenged when up against a shorter Dracula in Adam McRae. Magee’s journey is a stripping of aristo-veneer when out-classed by a Count, has to resort to muted panic. An outdoor production especially in Lochhead’s telegraphing Harker’s imprisonment, can’t quite cup this though Cooks’ wolverine baying from speakers excel (the thunder was mistaken by some as real), and the Brides crowd into their ‘vampire babes feed’ bit well. With Fay Magee’s on more comfortable ground.
Razavi conveys Seward’s humanity towards Trefor Levins’ Renfield, tetchiness to Harker, warmth to Lucy. Vocally he’s not quite inside his rational brief, and when confronting David Balfe’s Van Helsing apt to shoutiness. Razavi has the physicality to impose, conveying a baffled nobility, though needs to bring the compass of rational chill to outrage then jaw-dropping conviction confronting his un-dead fiancée. Lochhead demands he’s split open.
Levins solos in a corner: Renfield’s linguistically, spatially excluded. It’s an imposing performance, schizoid word-salad-rhymes making brilliant use of seeming nonsense like lucid and Lucy then sliding to hideously exact prophesy. Lochhead makes Renfield more cogent, more interesting than the study in pathos he is. As indicated, he breaks out (continually, can’t get the staff) to warn Minna and then as Dracula apes his voice he’s brought in tethered as a dog. This can elicit laughter. Renfield’s next move though restores an underlying conflicted heroism; Levins knows what to do with it.
Staff here are Andrew Wesby’s near-mute Orderly Drinkwater, a cameo neatly taken. You wonder why Lochhead wrote him in: nominal muscle to wrestle psychos but why not give him words? As it is Lochhead opts for Bad Nurse Nisbett, Good Nurse Grice, both taken by Kate Stoner who also takes on a Maid for the reason Mitchell-Turner does a Bride.
Stoner’s almost Lancelot Gobbo (two-minded servant of Shylock), flipping between comically nasty Nurse and naïve young coochy-kind one. The effect with Lochhead carried away in stand-up mode is comic – you feel Lochhead’s forgetting what play she’s writing. It’s too much. Stoner’s distinct to start with, though in the same dress and actor it’s increasingly difficult to blur nurses apart, especially in the laying-out scene.
MacRae’s Dracula is urbane, exuding sinister civility. He flinches wildly when a crucifix foisted on Harker by superstitious villagers gets pulled out, revels in irony. It’s unfair he’s out-topped by Magee’s Harker; this can be overcome by presence. MacRae’s often simmering upstage though rightly isn’t busy – when this happens by a non-speaking actor it pulls focus – and Lochhead gives him belated backstory narrated in a Christian finale of forgiveness by Van Helsing, not textually prepared for. You wonder how MacRae might chill his aura effectively. MacRae’s Dracula hasn’t silence to be sexy in; in a two-hour-twenty production Lochhead’s text means you’ve little chance to build up the sexiness and terror this work must own.
Balfe’s Van Helsing walks on with assurance: treads as a Van Helsing you believe in. He’s usefully press-ganged by Lochhead as jump-cut narrator. Vocally Balfe’s catches something of the Amsterdam twang, counters that blustering fracture of reason in Seward by recruiting Harker in his Hamlet-Horatio speech – since Harker’s seen Dracula.
Again Lochhead brilliantly uses Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone trick of hypnotising the hero to reveal his vampire brides trip – to Seward’s and Minna’s horror. Balfe’s effectual though has little time (coming on in the shorter second half) to establish authority over the living.
Identity Theatre’s a class apart; there’s enough of that here to show why – following lockdown, absence, rain-off rehearsals. Lochhead’s Dracula is a gift drawing everything together with convincing small roles, story-nailing innovations. It’s a curse to atmosphere when the sun’s against you, in an open-air theatre; actors have little to establish mood and dread but themselves. Some like Mitchell-Turner and Fay, and next Bliss and Levins bring their own lamp of through-glass-darkly despite the carnival bask.
Happily ID wield a battery of effects too. Though the upstage obsidian castle seems underused for its massy promise, it’s certainly spectacular on occasion and the blood-spills thrill horribly. And Cook bullseyes with eerie soundcsapes, dusk-skewering sunlight stabbing Dracula. It’s why we know this company will produce classics again. And why you should see this with some fine acting and a storyline making more sense of Dracula than Stoker does himself.