Wilton’s Music Hall, London, UK; October 10, 2013       

David Mead       

Jonathan Goddard as Dracula and Kirstin McGuire as Lucy Westerna in Mark Bruce's 'Dracula'. Photo © Colin Hawkins

Jonathan Goddard as Dracula and Kirstin McGuire as Lucy Westerna in Mark Bruce’s ‘Dracula’.
Photo © Colin Hawkins

There is something about Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror novel “Dracula”. It’s been adapted almost 300 times in film and television, with countless more stage versions. There have been plenty of dance reworkings too; our own Northern Ballet has had two. But has there ever been a dance version as thrilling as this, especially when staged in the gloriously atmospheric in themselves surroundings of the largely unrestored 163-year old Wilton’s Music Hall?

Bruce has steered clear of the clichéd interpretations. He returns to the tale itself, while referencing the best of the popular retellings. He always moves the story on apace, blackouts allowing for the swift shifting from tableau to tableau and location to location. Wherever we find ourselves when the lights return, Guy Hoare’s dark, smoky lighting gives proceedings a really claustrophobic feel that is only magnified at Wilton’s by the dancers being almost on top of the audience. It also leaves plenty of room for the imagination to run riot.

Along with Hoare, set designer Phil Eddols plays his part in bringing forth this Gothic nightmare. As the house lights dim, huge, eerie looking wrought iron gates appear in the misty distance. Dracula appears, soon followed by his hounds, and stares around. Those hounds are dancers, dressed in black and wearing startlingly menacing black masks courtesy of Pickled Image. The scene is quite chilling. Dracula is actually hunting, but there’s equally a sense of him marking out his territory. Back at the castle he produces a sack for his vampire brides. We never see it, but a baby’s cry is all that’s needed to send a shiver through the theatre.

There’s more brilliance from Eddols as the story continues: tombs convert into a chaise longue and table, a ship’s bridge is magicked up, and best of all, a horse-drawn coach appears from the gloom carrying Jonathan Harker to Dracula’s castle. This is indeed the coach ride to hell. The hounds may have been impressive but the masks for the horses are even better, making the dancers look like huge chess pieces come to life.

As Dracula, Jonathan Goddard is quite simply exceptional. He lives every gesture. His piercing, staring eyes drill right through you. He creeps around with the silence of a shadow, before suddenly springing into life. Much of the time his sense of unease and deep melancholy with the contradictory position he finds himself in is palpable. He is both man and beast; someone who one moment revels in the use of his power, but in the next is appalled at what he has become.

Kristin McGuire, Cree Barnett Williams and Hannah Kidd (left to right) as the vampire brides in Mark Bruce's 'Dracula'. Photo © Colin Hawkins

Kristin McGuire, Cree Barnett Williams and Hannah Kidd (left to right) as the vampire brides in Mark Bruce’s ‘Dracula’.
Photo © Colin Hawkins

Goddard gives us a Dracula who is vulnerable and yet who, in his own way, cares. It’s quite an achievement, but he actually makes you feel for him. Equally, he always lets us know that lurking but a millimetre below the surface is unbridled ferocity. However, calm he appears, you know he could strike in a split second. And the monster does always come out on top, even with his vampire brides, splendidly danced by Cree Barnett Williams, Nicole Guarino and Hannah Kidd. When he finds them playing with the blooded Harker, his rage boils over. For those expecting to see blood, this scene also includes some rather impressive use of blood capsules.

There are moments of black humour, as when Barnett Williams, Guarino and Kidd appear as sexy waitresses in a routine that parodies 1920s film. There’s more silent -film style fun when Kristin McGuire’s Lucy is proposed to by three men. Her exaggerated facial expressions are a delight.

The darker elements are contrasted with the love between Mina and Jonathan Harker, danced by Eleanor Duval and Christopher Tandy. The use of a white pigeon, attached to a long pole, to carry messages between them was simple and effective.

Bruce’s dance vocabulary is as eclectic as his score. He switches from ballet to rather more muscular contemporary dance with ease; and who could forget Goddard’s Dracula dancing a soft shoe shuffle? His musical choices are equally wide-ranging, starting with Ligeti’s “Atmosphères”, before running through Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and large parts of Schnittke’s very bleak, austere and sparse “Symphony No.4”, the latter rather appropriate given it is a statement of deeply held religious faith. There’s even time for traditional music hall songs. Common sense tells you it shouldn’t work; but it does.

The stunning images continue right to the end. As the story reaches its climax, Bruce shows us the three brides hung up on the railings by their human pursuers. Dracula himself appears being chased energetically. Have his enemies become so obsessed they have become almost as bloodthirsty as their prey? Eventually they catch him, he crumbles to dust, and a marvellous evening’s theatre is over.

Mark Bruce should be careful. He’ll be giving storytelling through contemporary dance theatre a good name. What is certain is that this “Dracula” is a masterful and quite terrific theatrical experience. If you only see one show this autumn, see this one.

“Dracula” continues at Wilton’s Music Hall to November 2, before touring to the North Wall, Oxford (Novemebr 5 and 6) and Merlin Theatre, Frome (November 9 and 10).