When Francis Ford Coppola made his film version of Dracula, he gave it the title Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mark Bruce’s new dance theatre version could be called the same: both are creative retellings of Stoker’s story rather than outright reimaginings of it. True, they depart from the source text in significant (and very different) ways, but they are both, fundamentally, adaptations of the book.
That is more of a challenge for Bruce than for Coppola. Stoker’s book is weird and complicated, its twisty plot registered in a series of journal entries by multiple characters, each one brimming with partial visions, private doubts and hidden desires. Coppola, deploying a standard filmic style with its unities of action, setting and speech, straightens this out into a clear narrative fairly easily. Bruce, working with movement, a cast of ten, a single small stage and not a word spoken (though there is some hefty snarling and panting, as well as a snatch of song), has a trickier task. Sensibly, he streamlines the cast – vampire hunter Van Helsing and madman Renfield are both cut – but viewers who don’t already know the story in some detail will still have problems following the action and characters, and some scenes (Dracula’s sea voyage, the children in a graveyard) seem in this context both redundant and likely to cause confusion.
But who, really, wants Dracula "straightened out"?
But who, really, wants Dracula “straightened out”? Part of the book’s surreal fascination lies in its odd lurches of style and subject – and that is what Bruce is good at, even if it is sometimes at the expense of storytelling. Just as his music skips from Beethoven to Schnittke, growly guitar to Victorian songs from the parlour or the pub, his scenes flip between hammy silent-film comedy, dark dance theatre, stagey music-hall turns and moody set-pieces. My advice for viewers is: don’t worry too much about following the plot, just go with the imagery and indulge in the production, which is terrific. Guy Hoare’s sepulchral lighting glows like gaslight or pierces through mists like – well, like stakes through shrouds – and helps make Phil Eddolls’ cleverly adaptable set appear much bigger and unbounded than it is: a wrought iron gate looms in the distance, sarcophagi in vaults become sofas in sitting rooms, shadows stalk drawing rooms and bedchambers. The costumes (by Dorothee Brodrück) are marvellous too, from the blood-smudged nightgowns of the vampire brides through to the reptilian sheen of Dracula’s coat, the wanton scarlet of Lucy’s dress. A special mention goes to the masks (designed by Pickled Image): black horseheads like giant chesspieces, and faintly S&M wolf hoods, complete with lustrous teeth and tipping jaws.
Haunting the whole work, as he should, is Jonathan Goddard’s Dracula, his eyes glimmering with unreadable intensity from his sharp-boned face, whether gazing upon the captive figure of Jonathan Harker (Christopher Tandy) or feasting on the body of Lucy (Kristin McGuire). He is an outstanding dancer, but his most memorable move is his simplest: running, wild-eyed, on the spot – in the opening as if giving chase, at the end as the hunter now hunted, the first an image of desire, the second of fear.
Perhaps the most memorable scene (certainly the spookiest) is the cinematic closing number of the first act, in which Jonathan Harker discovers the crypt of Castle Dracula – and the vampire brides discover Jonathan Harker. The far-off figure of Harker’s fiancée Mina (Eleanor Duval) looks unseeing into the distance as the brides (Cree Barnett Williams, Nicole Guarino, Hannah Kidd) tear savagely into Harker’s frail flesh. And what music they make: the accompanying sound of Beethoven’s over-familiar Moonlight Sonata becomes, in this rending scene, something ineffably strange, eerie and sad.
Everyone “knows” that sex is part of the Dracula mystique, and Bruce certainly makes the theme clear, though (rightly) not explicit. Lucy is a bit of a vamp at the start, rather delighted by having three suitors for her hand, a Doctor (Wayne Parsons), a Priest (Jordi Calpe Serrats) and a Lord (Alan Vincent); and her choice of wealth (the brash aristocrat) over knowledge or faith looks scandalously amoral. But before she can marry for money, she is taken by Dracula, and turns to her dark, carnal side, convulsing on her bed as her suitors try to purge her of Dracula’s blood. Mina and Jonathan’s wedding night is no roll in the hay either: they grapple with each other bleakly, failing to connect. Sex, pierced skin, blood, marriage – Bruce is aware, even if Stoker was not, that the story is awash with anxieties about female virginity, purity and sexuality.
Dracula is also about that constant companion to sex: religion.
Equally obvious, though curiously less known, is that Dracula is also about that constant companion to sex: religion. Again, Bruce brings out the theme. When Lucy is savagely staked, it is to the sound of a choral “amen”. Mina, after her bloody congress with Dracula, appears with a red cross branded on her forehead. The three vampire brides, pursued and slain in the end by Lucy’s suitors, are hung up in a row on the iron gate, recalling images of the crucifixions at Golgotha. And in the final scene (which I like to call “Mina’s in Furs”), Bruce makes his last change to Stoker’s story: Mina, a fur collar covering the bloodied wound in her neck, takes the Bible out of Jonathan’s hands – and makes a choice of her own.
Bruce certainly “gets” Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and he is clearly a fan. As am I – but I am also a bit of a sucker for dance, and I sometimes longed for this piece to a be a touch less “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and a touch more Mark Bruce’s: a little less transfixed by the text, and occasionally more choreographic than narrative in its approach. Less story, I think, might help to tell the story that that is there; and the pacing, which is sometimes rushed, might breathe a little more. Some scenes, such as the sea voyage and the almost-magical ride of horses and wolves through the forest, seemed to me to cry out for a more explicitly choreographic treatment. Still, there is much to savour in Dracula, on many levels – not least a powerfully haunting character who doesn’t appear on the cast list: Wilton’s Music Hall, the venue. Okay, it may not be alive, but this spookily atmospheric old building is surely a little undead, and it is perfect for this production.