Carmilla, adapted and directed by Laura J Harris from Le Fanu’s original Gothic novella, is a tale of love, decorum, passion and vampires. The adaptation focuses on and enhances the LGBTQIA+ elements of the story, to create a piece of theatre which is haunting, tragic and wonderfully terrifying.
The play opens with a dark and creepy stage with the background of a very Gothic castle. We see Dr Hesselius creeping across the stage with a lantern, towards a table holding an old book, glass of red wine and a delicate porcelain teacup.
The good doctor is nearing the end of his life, and leafing through his casebook as he reflects on whether his future may lie in hell, or if the souls he saved were enough to gain passage to heaven. As he ruminates on what is to come, Laura rises from the bed on the side of the stage and creeps over to him in a long, white nightdress. Horrified that she, of all people, would come to haunt him, between the two of them, they begin to narrate the tragic story of her relationship with Carmilla, and the devastating effects it had on her family.
We see Laura as a little girl, asleep in her bed, when she is suddenly awoken by Carmilla watching her. Their conversation leaves the young Laura screaming and, her governess, Madame Peridon, comes running. Convinced that the beautiful lady who has supposedly hurt Laura is nothing but a nightmare, Madame Peridon doesn’t take Laura’s fears seriously, despite her supernatural beliefs which irritate Laura’s aunt and guardian, Grace.
The incident soon fades into memory and an adult Laura is continuing her life in the schloss, when two sudden events change the course of her quiet life. Her cousin, Bertha dies unexpectedly in dark and mysterious circumstances. Shortly after receiving the news, Carmilla and her mother have a carriage accident right outside the schloss grounds. The secretive pair request lodging for the injured Carmilla while her mother goes away for three months on urgent business. Laura, of course, recognises Carmilla from her childhood nightmare, and their relationship deepens quickly when Carmilla relates having an identical dream about the adult Laura decades previously.
The portrayals of Carmilla and Laura are excellent and carefully synchronised movement emphasises the strength of their affectionate and flirtatious relationship without ever appearing artificial or trite. The adult Laura possesses a world-weary cynicism, that her innocent child counterpart does not, which shows the progression of her character as she has grown and been repeatedly abandoned by everyone she loves. Carmilla’s curious habits pique Laura’s interest, but instead of becoming suspicious, she becomes increasingly possessive over her new friend and their relationship quickly progresses into a violently passionate affair. Costumes have been carefully chosen to highlight Laura and Carmilla’s relationship, with Laura appearing in light colours and Carmilla in dark.
Laura’s brother, Arthur is very well performed and his dual role as Dagmar’s dog is a fun touch. Dr Hesselius is very good, and has a nice way of portraying being an expert in his field and an untrustworthy believer in the supernatural at the same time.
The first half of the play is excellent, with a mesmerising story and moments of wonderfully terrifying Gothic horror. Unfortunately, the second half loses pace somewhat, and while there are some high points, there are too many instances of static storytelling and explanations which would be stronger if these were left as hinted elements of Carmilla’s terrifying backstory.
As is common in live-streamed productions, there were unfortunately a few technical issues, particularly with sound, which left lines almost inaudible on occasion. The feed did cut altogether at one point, but luckily nothing vital was lost from the story at the point it dropped.
The non-linear narrative is brilliantly bewildering and disorientating as you are taken in by Carmilla’s hypnotic nature and walk alongside Laura, Arthur and all who are fooled by her. Carmilla is a classic Gothic tale, and it is easy to see how much Stoker’s more well-known novel was influenced by both its themes and story. This is a good adaptation with moments of genuine terror and an overarching feeling of dread. While the horror of the story could be intensified with a tighter script and greater focus on the main characters of the tale, this is an entertaining and well performed piece of theatre which will appeal to audiences both familiar with and new to the novella.
Carmilla is being streamed by Edinburgh Fringe until 28th August 2021. Tickets for the live stream are available here https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/carmilla-1 and tickets for on-demand streams are available here https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/carmilla
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 25th August 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★