With the untimely death of Christopher Lee and the persistent rise of vampires in popular culture, the Sherman Theatre’s newly formed amateur group, Sherman Players, have aptly chosen Bram Stoker’s classic Gothic tale ‘Dracula’ as their inaugural production. In this version, adapted by Scottish poet Liz Lochhead, specific attention is paid to the struggles of the female characters and to the psychological damage of Renfield, often neglected in previous adaptations. This feminist aspect to Lochhead’s script brings a contemporary relevance to the piece and, in Philip Mackenzie’s production, the casting of a female Dracula reinterprets this iconic character with new feminine mystique. This is certainly one of the more experimental amateur productions to be witnessed, with its double-casting and continuous choreography, but at times it appears too ambitious for its own good.
There is a permanent atmosphere of dread throughout the evening which never subsides, to the point where it drains our engagement. Bethany Seddon’s overall design places the cast within a mental asylum, which does reach interesting, if broad, conclusions on the sanity of the characters once they come in contact with Dracula. However, during the scenes, the ensemble writhe and jitter throughout, in an attempt to create compelling unease and discomfort, but the result is distracting and overpowers Lochhead’s sharply poeticised script. The decision to double-cast characters who are affected by Dracula’s essence, whether directly or not, (i.e. Lucy, Mina, Florrie, Arthur and Renfield) aims to show their fragmented personalities and their disturbed mental state. But again, the effect is overwhelming to the audience and seems more a move of convenient casting than a genuine interpretive technique.
The Sherman’s Studio can sometimes appear too barren but the space is used innovatively by the company. The audience surround the stage from above, as though looking down upon its unhinged inhabitants. Renfield’s cell is placed upstage central, establishing our focus on his condition. The back wall of white brick is used effectively too during Van Helsing’s troubled soliloquy, almost as though we are witnessing him cowering in an alleyway.
Stand-out performances are given by Finbar Varral as the inquisitive Jonathan Harker and Inari Soinila as one of two playing Florrie Hathersage, bringing emotional depth to a cast all performing far too similarly. Saskia Pay and Meg Lewis capture the carnal awakening of Lucy, showing her adolescent curiosity, while Fabian Niavarany portrays a sensitive Van Helsing. Alys Wilcox as Dracula gets the look and intensity right, but lacks the certain charm that is integral to drawing the victims in. On her first entrance, she is followed round the stage by a man with a torch, casting a Nosferatu-esque shadow on the surrounding wall – a nice touch.
The lighting, by Ace McCarron and Hristo Takov, is the most successful aspect here, with its wandering silhouettes of slanted doorways, harking back to the conventions of silent horror films and Hitchcock. The sound too, composed by John Rea and mixed by director Philip Mackenzie, combines electronic beats with searing ambient noise that suitably compliments this contemporary interpretation.
This first production then does have plenty of dramatic potential on show, but in future, some versatility and subtlety in direction would not go amiss.
Sherman Players’ ‘Dracula’ is at Sherman Theatre Studio until 25th July 2015.