Patrick Centre, Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK; October 16, 2014
Last year at the wonderfully atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall in London, Mark Bruce’s “Dracula” was a huge hit. But there was always a nagging question. How much of a role did the venue itself play in the success? Wilton’s is small and as unique as they come. Its balcony has the effect of compressing the space, which in turn heightens the atmosphere and tension. How would it fare in a modern black-box theatre?
You don’t get much more black-box that Birmingham’s Patrick Centre, and while the it does undeniably look and feel a little different in such a space, the great news is that “Dracula” is still a magnificent show and an outstanding piece of storytelling through dance theatre.
Although he’s dispensed with a character here and there, most notably Van Helsing and the lunatic Renfield, and slipped in a bleak opening scene in which Dracula takes a new born baby from its mother and feeds it to his vampire brides, Bruce generally sticks remarkably closely to Bram Stoker’s tale, thankfully steering well clear of the clichéd interpretations. Don’t think it’s all desperately conventional, though. It’s not. Expect the unexpected; not least the moments of humour, sometimes laugh out loud, as when Lucy Westernra rejects her three suitors one by one, sometimes dark, most notably when Dracula torments Harker as he dances a soft shoe routine complete with top hat and cane to a music hall number.
While the story moves along swiftly, blackouts allowing for neat changes of scene and location, it never loses its clarity. You don’t need to have read the programme to work out what’s going on, or who is who – always a good sign. Bruce also finds time to slot in all sorts of little moments of detail which those really familiar with the book will spot, such as that when Jonathan Harker spots Dracula crawling head first down one of the towers at his castle.
Guy Hoare’s dark, misty lighting and Phil Eddolls’ set, dominated as it is by a set of huge iron gates, combine to give an appropriately Gothic feel. In Birmingham, though, things did not feel as claustrophobic as previously. That was probably due largely to the wider stage and quite steeply raked seating, which means everyone looks down on proceedings, altering the perspective significantly. But the rather odd lack of smoke at times didn’t help either. A mention in dispatches, though, for the startlingly menacing black masks courtesy of Pickled Image, especially the horses’ heads that look like giant chess pieces.
At the centre of everything is Jonathan Goddard’s brooding Count Dracula. His dance reflects his contradictory personality, part nobleman, part beast, one minute soaring high, the next low to the floor, almost, it often seemed, as if he was truly suffering as a result of his inescapable predicament. Goddard lives every gesture. There are moments when you sense his Count just might care about someone, but there are always those wide-open, piercing eyes that drill to the core. You just know his unbridled ferocity is never far away.
But there are plenty of other stand-out performances, especially from Kristin McGuire as the beautiful Lucy who becomes seduced by Dracula. As in the novel, she is one of the most interesting characters. Her journey from kittenish, vivacious young woman to victim and vampire is superbly charted. Her final capture and the driving of a stake through her heart is chillingly realistic.
The darker elements are contrasted with the love between Mina and Jonathan Harker (Eleanor Duval and Wayne Parsons). Bruce cleverly marks the changes in their personality and relationship. Their first duet is full of childlike innocence, but a second, after Jonathan’s meeting with the Count, is far more pained. And Mina’s dance with Dracula in Act II is far more sexually-charged than any she does with her husband. The use of a white pigeon attached to a long pole to carry messages between them (the book was written as a series of letters and journal entries) is simple and effective.
The three vampire brides, Nichole Guarino, Grace Jabbari and Hannah Kidd, do a fine job as a silent chorus, stalking around to great effect, and even finding time to to raise the odd eyebrow in mocking commentary of the goings on.
The patchwork music is eclectic. Bruce himself composed Dracula’s Eastern European tinged theme, while elsewhere Schnittke’s “Symphony No.4” puts in several appearances alongside Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, experimental rock composer Fred Frith, and Florrie Forde’s “Down at the Old Bull and Bush”. Yes, really! Bruce’s dance vocabulary is just as wide-ranging and shifts from classical ballet to edgy contemporary to music hall with ease.
“Dracula” has already picked up the 2014 South Bank Sky Arts Award for dance, and it will be a major surprise if more don’t come its way. If this gem of a piece comes your way, don’t miss it.
Mark Bruce’s “Dracula” continues on tour nationwide. For full details of dates and venues click here.