The Shaw Festival serves up a defanged Dracula

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — You know there’s something wrong with the trendy 1985 version of Dracula currently available at the Shaw Festival when you quickly start yearning for the old Hamilton Deane-John Balderston stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s celebrated vampire shocker.

To be sure the latter is somewhat creaky and happy to indulge in old-fashioned melodramatics. But it can still have a potent impact on stage and was still scaring the daylights out of playgoers in a 1977 Broadway revival starring Frank Langella.

Unfortunately, the blood-sucking Count’s fangs have been drawn in Scottish poet Liz Lochhead’s feminist rereading of Stoker’s 1897 shocker. Furthermore, not withstanding her script’s pretensions to originality in idea, it’s scarcely an earth-shattering discovery that Stoker’s novel was dealing with female sexuality, both repressed and also unleashed under Dracula’s malevolently toothy tutelage. Indeed, the people at Britain’s Hammer studio lustily explored this scenario in a Dracula film cycle launched in the in the late 1950s with Christopher Lee in red-eyed, lip-smacking form as the Count. But, no doubt, the Hammer films must be dismissed as low art and therefore not to be taken with the seriousness that Lochhead’s hi-faluting treatment demands.

Eda Holmes’s production in the Festival Theatre manages to stir up a couple of genuinely blood-curdling moments near the end — most notably after Dracula has turned Female Victim Number One — the sweet and vulnerable Lucy Westerman — into one of the undead and almost succeeds in doing the same to her sister, Mina. The Lucy of Cherissa Richards comes through with a harrowing display of unhinged eroticism before being dispatched for good, thereby leaving us anxiously waiting to see whether that dedicated vampire hunter, Doctor Van Helsing, portrayed with commendably camp-defying seriousness by Steven Sutcliffe, will be able to save the still vulnerable Mina and then deal decisively with Dracula.

These sequences are visually, viscerally powerful. They also constitute one of the few occasions when the production is seriously prepared to recognize Dracula for what it is — a horror story. To be sure, there is a spooky musical and sound design, courtesy of John Gzowski. Alan Brodie does on occasion contribute some ominous lighting, but only on occasion, and Cameron Davis’s projections provide some scudding clouds. Yet there’s no sustained atmosphere. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco’s set is so sparely conceived as to seem antiseptic with the result that much of the evening feels dramatically sterile.

We seem to witnessing a failure of the imagination here. If director Eda Holmes and her design colleagues faced serious economic constraints with this production, they might have benefitted from a trip to YouTube to take a look at Trevor Nunn’s truly frightening 1979 production of Macbeth, mounted for peanuts on a bare RSC stage with Ian McKellen and Judy Dench in the leads. But perhaps Holmes’s real problem was that she found herself trapped between the feminist sensibility of the Liz Lochhead dramatization and the no-nonsense horrors of the original novel.

Something’s acutely wrong with Dracula on stage when tedium takes hold. This happens early on. First, the eerie sight of a female victim on a swing, and that’s okay, followed by a scene of the two sisters trying on corsets. And that’s not okay, unless you’re ready to start buying into the script’s preoccupation with emancipated women and the threat they face when long-toothed predators emerge from Transylvania to invade their world with designs on their lovely necks.

On the other hand, perhaps this Dracula is intended to pacify the shade of the festival’s namesake Bernard Shaw, who had a thing about the so-called New Woman. Who knows? Indeed, who cares? Lochhead is capable of rich, evocative dialogue, but too often here she weights it with a seriousness that Stoker’s world cannot carry. She is also capable of humour — Allan Louis’s Count, portrayed with courtly menace by Allan Louis, can be an amusing monster. But sometimes the humour is derivative. Lochhead, who has a weakness for the double entendre, even has the nerve to give us a scene that shamelessly excavates the most famous comic line in the Hitchcock film, To Catch A Thief.

This Dracula trudges on for three hours, and at times it feels longer. So it takes a lot of nerve for festival hucksters to bill it as “red-blooded theatre that will leave all your senses on fire.” That might be true had the festival embraced the original’s late Victorian horrors in all their hokeyness. Instead, it even makes a hash of the novel’s terrifying opening, which sees English solicitor Jonathan Harker visit Dracula’s castle to close a real-estate deal with the mysterious Count and ends up in a nightmare situation that sees him under lascivious attack from Dracula’s vampire brides. The first thing you notice is the bargain-basement attempt at making the castle look spooky, The second is that the big set-piece moments here are not the horrors, which tend to be rather perfunctory in execution, but derive rather from a mordantly amusing dinner conversation between the hapless Harker of Ben Sanders and the sinister but seductive Dracula of Allan Louis.

Harker’s soul-shrivelling experiences in Castle Dracula are kept away from us until later in the play, and by that time our interest in what’s happening is beginning to sag, and in any event this sequence fails to supply the pay-off that the Stoker novel so memorably delivers. Instead, we get the feeling that the people behind this production aspire to loftier concerns than those which have ensured the book’s continuing popularity.

“Is he in England now?” the puzzled lady next to me asked her husband. To which he, equally puzzled, replied: “I’m not sure.” They’re talking about Dracula who, of course, does make it over to England in his closed coffin and then proceeds to create mayhem. But how aware of this are we as audience members? It seems that even a sense of shifting locales, surely an important component of narrative clarity, is not a major production priority here.

That being said, cast members do tackle their assignments dutifully. Both Cherissa Richards (Lucy) and Marla McLean (Mina) contribute some scary moments, and Natasha Mumba is solidly convincing as a maid named Florrie even though she’s a newly created character who’s intended, no doubt, to serve this adaptation’s particular agenda. Martin Happer is fine as a blockhead of a doctor, and Graeme Somerville is outstanding as Renfield, the psychiatric patient who eats flies while he awaits Dracula’s arrival in England.

The production might have benefitted from more of Van Helsing, given an entertaining Steven Sutcliffe’s clear understanding of what was required him in the role of Dracula’s nemesis. And it would certainly have received a boost if Allan Louis’s black-caped Dracula in all his alluring menace had shown up more frequently. No such luck. This is a Dracula intent on short-changing the original material — and therefore itself. No wonder that it’s often a severe test on the audience’s patience.

(Dracula runs to Oct. 14. Further information at 1 800 511 7429 and shawfest.com)

 


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