Dracula is the last story you’d expect to be workable as a five-hander play – but John Ginman’s adaptation just about pulls it off.
For some reason, famous novels seem to be particularly prone to bad adaptations, on both stage and screen, at least amongst the ones I’ve seen. Of course, most novels are too long and detailed to fit into a play or film without substantial cuts, and it’s not always easy to make the right choice, but most of the time the butchering is inexcusable. There’s the predictable commercially-motivated interference such as inserting an unnecessary/inappropriate love interest, or dumbing down the plot to keep it understandable to the audience of idiots that only exist in the minds of the marketing department. But most irritating of all is changing substantial bits of the story for no apparent reason, even if they bit they cut was perfectly workable on stage or screen – I can only imagine these adaptation writers think they’re making it better.
So it was with some caution that I ventured to Harrogate to see a new stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The novel needs no introduction; the adaptation is a new one from Blackeyed Theatre on its first run. Adaptation writer John Ginman does not, thank goodness, attempt to impose pointless changes to the plot, but he did take a couple of decision that were a bit of a surprise. One might assume that an effective adaptation of the famous Gothic horror story would need elaborate sound design to make the play suitably atmospheric, and a large cast to accommodate the multitude of characters in the books. This play, does neither. There are no sound effects other than what the actors produce on stage, in a nod to how things were done in Victorian days. More importantly, by either boldness or recklessness, the cast is just five. That’s tiny for a novel of this complexity and much less than most adaptation. It is, if you like, the “fun-size” version of Dracula adaptations.
But whilst “fun-size” usually code for “disappointingly small” in chocolate, this adaptation is anything but disappointing. Blackeyed Theatre is not, as one might assume, a small-scale production economising on cast and technicians for touring purposes, but a well-established group with a large creative team behind it – and the small scale of the production is used as a strength rather than a weakness. The sound was produced entirely on stage, using singing, instrument, bells, and other things to produce something just as atmospheric as sound effects. And why not? This was, after all, how sound was done before there were loudspeakers.
The really impressive thing, however, is the way as cast of five is used in the story. Doubling (or, in this case, tripling/quadrupling/quintupling/hexupling) parts is not an easy task as you might think. It’s not just a simple case of making sure the right actor is on the stage at the right time – you’ve got to make sure you audience don’t lose who’s playing who. This is especially difficult when there isn’t time to change costumes; it’s very easy to get this wrong, and I’ve seen many adaptations that confuse the hell out of the audience. This adaptation, however, pulls every trick in the book to keep the story clear and concise, with actors sometimes switching between parts in second. On the whole, it’s a very faithful adaptation following the original plot quite closely, with Quincy and Arthur (two more of Lucy’s suitors) being the only major cuts from the story.
One small annoyance was the lack of comic moments in the play. This might seem like a niggling point, but if you don’t look for comic moments in a dark play the audience tend to end up laughing at the wrong moment: in this case, it undermined the destruction of Lucy in her coffin, something that should be one of the tensest moments. And bold though they were to double the parts of Dracula and Van Helsing, and clever through the writing was to manage this, I think this was an economy too far. Some of the twists at the end of story I felt got lost, and for all the efforts, a final struggle between Dracula and the good guys where Van Helsing suddenly drops out of the picture isn’t quite the same. Nevertheless, this is a highly impressive adaptation, and I would recommend catching on the tour if you have the chance.
This was also a chance for me to check out Harrogate Theatre. Dracula was in the main house, which is quite similar in layout to Darlington Civic Theatre (except a bit smaller), and the beautiful internal decor is part of the attraction of the visit. But unlike Darlington, Harrogate Theatre also has studio theatre space. This means that the theatre is opened up to acts suited to smaller audiences, which is why I got to check out Hidden, and Edinburgh Fringe play from last year now on tour.
Annoyingly, the biggest gripe I had this this was not the play or the performance, but the space they were performing in. Welcome though it is that there is a studio theatre that opens Harrogate up to small groups (something lacking in the theatres like Darlington Civic and Durham’s Gala), this struck me as something tagged on as an afterthought. The back three rows of seats have poor views of the stage, which was quite avoidable – that was down to a bad arrangement of seating tiers. The performance was frequently disturbed by blaring PA announcements outside for the show in the main house. That did the play few favours, especially as Harrogate Theatre is supposed to be co-producing it.
However, let’s disregard what was beyond their control and look at the play itself. Hidden is a two-hander with the pair of actors (Laura Lindsay and Peter Carruthers) who between them play six characters. The premise is that these six characters all have their own hidden stories. With the two actors also co-writers, this is very much devised theatre. And devised theatre is hard. But one good way of avoiding the worst pitfalls of devised theatre, as they’ve done here, is to concentrate stories on individual characters. And when the stories were good, they were excellent. Strongest of all was James, the commuter who fall sin love with a woman who he regularly commutes with, and Nina, the wife he already has, made to feel increasingly the odd one out as more and more of her friends become child-obsessed mothers.
The trouble was, I felt this play couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be six stand-alone stories or six interlinked stories. Either would have been fine, but instead this play came across as only making a half-hearted attempt to connect the stories. As a result, the play, that looked quite promising at times, went on to a sadly underwhelming ending. For all of the strengths of the individual stories, the sum was weaker than its parts. These two actor/writer/devisers clearly have a lot of potential, and this is probably not be the last we hear of them, so I recommend the big challenge in future productions will be how to build individual stories into a play. That’s easier said than done, and off-hand I don’t have an answer. Good luck finding one.
Dracula tours until April 1st, including Middlesbrough Theatre on 12th March. Hidden tours on various dates until the 23rd May, including the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 17th May.