By Niall Oddy
It is a Friday night, about 10.15, and I am running across Palace Green with a lantern in my hand. This is a promenade adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and for an hour or so a small group of people follow the action into and around Durham Castle.
It was a bold decision to put on this piece; a decision that worked as David Knowles and Anna Jackson masterfully handled the production and staged something great – and I do not use that word lightly.
Yes, Dracula could conceivably have been performed on a conventional stage, but it would not have been a patch on this adaptation. It elevated theatre in Durham to new heights or creativity and originality. And it did so through one very simple idea: it got the audience involved. No matter how exciting a play in, say, the Assembly Rooms might be, thrusting an audience into the drama, making them move from one location to another, is one sure way to grip them. Indeed, I got a veritable frisson of excitement on each occasion when we had to run.
Of course, that in itself is not sufficient. Solid performances are required, and Dracula did not disappoint. Tom McNulty as Jonathan Harker, the first character we meet, had the difficult job of establishing the atmosphere of the whole piece. In his opening solo scene he did this sublimely, terror etched in his every word and every action. And where would Dracula be without a chilling, menacing vampire? Well, Joe Burke was that very Count Dracula.
There was a real intimacy to the piece – the small audience, the small rooms – which, importantly, helped to create some ‘realism’, the sense that we were involved in the action. The sound and lighting were also exploited well, both enhancing the atmosphere.
The play managed to avoid some potential pitfalls, including melodrama. This was achieved by the natural acting and the decision to have the violence take place off stage. We heard only frighteningly piercing screams and saw nothing – imagination, it is said, being more terrifying than any reality that could be depicted. In addition, Harker’s encounter with the three female vampires could so easily have turned, unfortunately, to smut, but it did not. Nor did it try to occlude the sexuality of them – their erotic nature was artfully handled and plain for us to see.
Repression, though, is not always a bad thing. Take the quiet brilliance of Elizabeth O’Connor as Mina Harker who – repression bursting at the very seams of her costume – gave a marvellous performance. The humanity with which she imbued the character and the warmth she brought amidst the tragedies was a real joy to behold.
All too often with plays that appear serious we can forget that we are supposed to enjoy ourselves and a director can, too focussed on the didactic purpose, forget that the play is supposed to be entertaining. This was not at all the case with Dracula: it was, to put it rather simply, fun.
Yes, there were some flaws, as with anything: perhaps Count Dracula could have been made to look more frightening; perhaps Tom Drysdale as Van Helsing wasn’t quite as good as Anthony Hopkins in the Coppola film; perhaps the students stumbling into Castle bar detracted somewhat from the eerie atmosphere. But that will not stop me raving about it for a long time to come.