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Viewing the Vampire: Dracula on Stage and Screen – Dr Harriet Fletcher

30th March 2022 by Lauren Randall

Having watched both Dracula: The Untold Story live on stage and through online platform Dracula on Demand, Dr Harriet Fletcher reflects on how both mediums allow our production to tell its unique story.

A hundred and twenty-five years since Bram Stoker published his celebrated gothic masterpiece, our appetite for vampires has never been more insatiable. Dracula: The Untold Story fuses live performance with digital technology to remix the story of gothic literature’s most infamous villain and to explore the (like Dracula himself) often shapeshifting nature of evil.

imitating the dog’s previous shows include Heart of Darkness, Night of the Living Dead (TM) REMIX and Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show, all of which were made available to watch online for free during the pandemic. Dracula: The Untold Story was the first live production since returning to theatres and an on-demand version was filmed so that audiences could experience the story from the comfort of their living rooms. Directed by Sodium Films, the on-demand version adds an intimate, immersive and cinematic edge to the experience of watching the play.

To unravel Dracula’s untold story, the show fittingly opens with a mystery. On a gloomy New Year’s Eve night in 1965, a young woman arrives at Marylebone Police Station and confesses to a brutal murder. DS Donaldson, a jaded senior officer eager to see the new year in with a cold beer, is convinced she’s wasting police time. WPC Williams, a more patient junior officer, is intrigued by the enigmatic stranger. The young woman claims to be Mina Harker, the last survivor of the group who defeated the legendary Dracula seventy years earlier. Over the course of a police interview, Mina tells her incredible story of becoming a travelling vigilante attempting to rid the world of Dracula’s evil influence.

The audience is transported to an uncanny 1960s universe that is both familiar and fanciful. Alongside Beatlemania, McCarthyism and the moon landing, the monstrous villain of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel is a real-life historical figure whose defeat at the hands of Mina and her band of Victorian vampire hunters is commemorated in a special exhibition at the British Museum. The 1960s backdrop and how it is worked into the visual identity of the show speaks to our enduring nostalgia for this decade. The play’s signature concept inspired by graphic novels echoes the Pop artists who crafted the aesthetic of the Swinging Sixties, from the larger-than-life comic strips of Roy Lichtenstein to Andy Warhol’s silkscreened Hollywood icons. The play’s experimental patchwork of visual effects, including comic strips, photographs and videos, has echoes of Peter Blake’s famous collage design for The Beatles’ 1967 Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. This blend of media is the perfect way of adapting and honouring the epistolary nature of Stoker’s novel, which itself is a story made up of fragments. Beyond Dracula, the vampire more widely lends itself to cross-medium styles of representation. For the author Stacey Abbott, ‘The vampire has always been a creature that evolves to suit the media that represent it, from folklore to literature to stage to cinema to television’.

Dracula: The Untold Story is a visual marvel that opens your eyes to how inventive a piece of live theatre can be. The show is both theatrical and cinematic; multiple cameras are positioned around the stage to capture the actors’ performances up close, which are then incorporated into the set design. This creative use of digital technology produces some spectacular visual effects. Most strikingly, when Mina narrates her travels through Europe, the actors can physically embody photographs of historical figures. The show’s multimedia set design animates the story by transforming it into a powerful cinematic experience in the theatre.

The play’s experimentation with cinematic elements comes as no surprise when looking back at Stoker’s novel. In his book New Vampire Cinema, Ken Gelder remarks on the vampire’s inherent relationship with the cinematic medium, observing that ‘vampires are ushered into the modern world by nothing less than cinema itself’. Published in 1897, only two years after the Lumière brothers invented their famous cinematograph, Dracula was produced on the cusp of cinema. Stoker’s vampire story is also steeped in new technologies, with characters using gadgets ranging from Kodak cameras to voice recorders, which makes the perfect source text for imitating the dog’s pioneering style of theatre. Dracula: The Untold Story honours the novel’s fascination with new technology and takes this to another imaginative level through both live and recorded theatre.

Watching the play on demand offers a behind-the-scenes experience that isn’t possible when watching in a theatrical venue. The combination of wide shots and close-ups captures the dynamic action of the performance as the actors move around the stage, while at the same time allowing you to fully appreciate the intricacies of the production.

Up close, you get a fresh perspective on the logistics and execution involved. The timing and rhythm of the performance is notably impressive when watching the filmed version because close-ups allow the audience to see how the actors unconventionally perform to the cameras rather than to each other. The smooth transitions between characters stands out, with Matt Prendergast switching between the cynical DS Donaldson and the monstrous Dracula in the same scene by using props and cameras to create a shadow puppet effect. The filmed version allows the audience to pick up on small details they may have missed when watching in the theatre. After watching the online version, I was pleasantly surprised to see that WPC Williams (Adela Rajnović) ventriloquises Dracula’s words as he speaks – a detail I missed when watching in the theatre because I was too far from the stage to notice it. This performance choice combined with imposing close-up shots are effective in conveying Dracula’s consuming influence over those who cross his path.

Being able to see the actors’ expressions up close enhances the experience of watching the play. Through sideways glances and eye movements alone, we can sense Mina’s emotional state when being interviewed by the police, even when she refuses to speak. Body movements themselves become a meaningful language to express character, emotions and actions. Seeing Riana Duce’s face in scenes of turmoil, terror and vulnerability adds another layer to her performance as Mina and makes you appreciate the complexity of the character. It creates a sense of intimacy between the actor on stage and the audience watching at home, allowing us to connect with the Mina and her story on a human level.

Dracula: The Untold Story not only feeds our enduring fascination with Dracula as one of gothic literature’s greatest villains, but also explores why we still find Mina Harker so compelling. Heroine or antiheroine? Victim or villain? Mother or monster? Domestic woman or New Woman? Vigilante assassin or calculated murderess? Mina’s story provides endless material for innovative retellings and imitating the dog’s captures the complexity of this iconic literary character.

Dr Harriet Fletcher is a writer and academic interested in film, TV and pop culture. She is currently based in Lancaster, where she completed a PhD on the intersections of celebrity and the Gothic in literature and media. She has published articles in The ConversationThe F-WordGhouls Magazine and SCAN, and can often be found researching and writing about all things Gothic. You can find her on Twitter at @gothicceleb

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