It seems to be, for no particular reason, a big year for Dracula. It isn’t the anniversary of its first publication, of the author’s birth, the author’s death, or of any of its most famous adaptations – apologies, uberfans of The Satanic Rites of Dracula, happy 50th to you – and yet this year we have seen two cinematic depictions of Dracula (the Nicholases Hoult and Cage film Renfield and the adaptation of a single chapter of the original novel with The Last Voyage of the Demeter), with another remake of Nosferatu also being shot this year (and also starring Nicholas Hoult). And of course, latest but not leastest, there is Dracula: Mina’s Reckoning, from the National Theatre of Scotland and Aberdeen Performing Arts, in association with Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.
As its title clearly states, this is Mina’s story, as told to the other inmates of a psychiatric hospital in Aberdeenshire in 1897. This Scottish setting draws on the original novel’s neglected Scottish roots, which include its basis in the research of almost forgotten Scots writer Emily Gerard (who first introduced the word “Nosferatu” to the English language in her works on Transylvanian history and superstitions), and the Scottish locations which inspired Stoker in his writing of the novel, though he transposed them out of their original country.
Though this production’s built around an all-female and non-binary casting, Maggie Bain, Liz Kettle and Catriona Faint’s turns as the backward Doctor Seward, evil Dracula, and ineffectual Jonathan Harker stand entirely on their own ground as their distinctive versions of these characters and Natalie Arle-Toyne’s comedic take on Doctor Van Helsing gets many of the laughs in the show. Less successful are some of the comedic jabs at Victorian male attitudes (“You can grow your mind or a child, not both”) which, ironically, are new to the 2023 version of the story and didn’t exist in the Victorian original, though it will have been informed by it in some of the same ways as the work of Thomas Clouston at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum which this play references. However, presenting them for comedic effect only highlights its distance from the original story, and it is especially puzzling that this was added in, when other scientific inaccuracies from the source material, such as the unknown risks of having blood transfusions from multiple donors irrespective of blood-type, are not only ignored, but preserved here unquestioned. It seems the dangers of the patriarchy and its control of women’s bodies could have been more, dare I say, fluidly shown by Doctor’s Seward’s ego-driven decision to be a blood-donor directly leading to Lucy’s death rather than by a few one-liners.
Similarly, several jarring shifts in the show’s last third muddy the characters in a way which feels less thematic than confused. What relevance does Renfield’s imprisonment for their non-binary wearing of trousers have if they (they are “them” to the inmates and “she” to Dr Seward) are also still obsessed with eating living things of increasing sizes in the belief that “the blood is the life”, and serving Dracula for this reason? How is Lucy a victim and Mina our heroine if the latter choses the same fate, even just for a time, as the former, and embraces (almost literally) the killer and curse of her best friend?
Ironically, this only partial change in adaptation results in many of the male characters, cartoonish as they might be, being more clearly drawn than our lead, played by Danielle Jam. This partial coagulation (sorry) of ideas and tones might be a case of too many cooks, as Pearson was joined in the credits by director, Sally Cookson, for the conception of the play, both were joined by Rosie Kellagher for the story credit, and The Company is credited with additional material.
However, this shared ownership might have helped the show in other ways, as the visuals and the ensemble’s work cannot be faulted. The latter’s dual roles are all distinct and memorable, with Ailsa Davidson’s Lucy Anne Lacey’s Mr Swails and Ros Watt’s Renfield each getting their time in the spotlight. The different levels of designer Kenneth MacLeod’s industrial set, with its gangways, ramps and ladders, gives them all a lot to work with, and allow the production to seamlessly shift from location to location, and from atmosphere to mood as Lewis Den Hertog’s projected clouds of blood and handwriting flow over its rocky peaks. Benji Dower’s music and Aideen Malone’s lighting give it all a moody, gothic feel, even allowing for the occasional (and highly effective) jump-scare centre stage.
An undoubtedly ambitious retelling of the story that tries to imprint its own tooth on the material, it is more assured in its spectacle than its storytelling, resulting in an entertaining but uneven show where the light outweighs the darkness.
Dracula: Mina’s Reckoning is running at the Theatre Royal Glasgow until the 16th September. Tickets can be found at: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/dracula-minas-reckoning/theatre-royal-glasgow/
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 13th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: