Dracula, Count Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Nosferatu – the ubiquitous vampire has had many names and just as many backstories in his countless adaptations. Andrew Simpson’s Dracula is one of the freshest in the memory.
In this version, Dracula began as the King of Light, who sought to learn from traveling to the forbidden Kingdom of the Dark with his queen. However, as they crossed the border, they were cursed by the powers that be – transforming them into vampires. Dracula descended into the monster we regularly associate with vampires, and proceeded to slay his own wife with a classic wooden stake through the heart.
This is some time prior to the actual period of the show itself – which takes place with a new King in power and a royal wedding soon to happen. The betrothed are the King’s sole heir, and a common girl named Ariel – whose investment in people has led to a curiosity with the Dark. This is not without its complications – the Dark being responsible for multiple recent murders and on the verge of war with the Kingdom of the Light – but the curiosity remains nonetheless.
The opening acts of this are nothing short of fantastic – establishing Ariel’s defiant and independent spirit immediately, and contrasting that to her groom’s caution with upsetting the status quo and the king’s strict adherence to it.
Early sources of conflict are opened up in the characters’ direct interactions, and meaningful subplots are introduced through dream sequences, subtle exposition and a wonderfully vibrant character called the Fortune Teller early on – played vividly by Shannon Hiebner, who delights throughout.
Perhaps the weakest character in these early introductions is Dracula himself, unfortunately played by Andrew Simpson. While there are hints to his character’s curse causing great pain, and allusion to internal conflict through his opening scenes, he neither comes off as the reluctant anti-hero, nor the vicious monster.
While this may be intentional to give Dracula an air of mystery, it imbues his early interactions with Ariel and the Fortune Teller with a sulky tone; he seems less of an anti-hero and more of a cross of the worst traits of V from V for Vendetta and Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars prequels. Where the show is otherwise either comical or emphatic in equal measure for its use of melodrama, in its eponymous character’s case, it just tends to drag out his scenes.
While the intention is clearly to make him brooding and ominous, yet still sympathetic, it makes him sulky, whining and impractical. This makes Michaela O’Toole’s performance of Ariel that much harder – as she has to bring an air of relatability to the character of both Ariel and Dracula in their collective development.
The show plays with the elements of dark and light throughout, implying that though there is a literal division in the kingdoms, the reality of darkness and light is not so dichotomous. The technical performance in this sense is phenomenal – both kingdoms are easily distinguished within the show itself and the eerie, orchestral music does a lot to lending a sense of uneasiness when it comes to trusting character’s intentions.
And yet, while Dracula is a mastercrafted blend of building tension and discomforting characters in its formative stages, the payoff is immensely disappointing. The ending is muddled and condensed – while the build-up takes the better part of the show’s hour length, the climax into conclusion takes all of around 15 minutes.
This means the resolutions to the show’s various subplots are messy and rushed; to avoid spoilers, it involves a muddled hypnosis scene, a brief and unimaginative fight scene, and a sudden ending with little lasting impact.
The phenomenal build-up work which saw intertwining subplots positioned on a knife’s edge, the character’s very foundations and morals questioned and the construction of a potentially world-building conflict was reduced to an arbitrary fist-fight and a rushed ending. Given another half an hour, I feel this could have been a fully realised point of climax and conclusion, but as it stands, Simpson’s production stutters to its end.
The music displays the way Dracula abandons its meticulous and calculated build-up better than any other element of this show. Where previously the music was an eerie and discomforting accompaniment to a strong build-up and befitting of a Gothic Fairy Tale – the genre the show classifies as – it descends into hamfisted insertions of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” and Muse’s “Uprising”, before leading us out to the wailing sounds of Disturbed’s “Down with the Sickness”.
Dracula in and of itself is honestly a fairly good show – it’s entertaining, for the most part engaging, and humorous in its quips and directed melodrama. Its biggest failings are in its namesake character – who fails to embody the legacy of bold, emphatic vampires before him; sloppy and rushed conclusion – which lets down what is otherwise a wonderfully crafted story; and tonal inconsistency – which lets down the show right where it has the opportunity to shine.
While I’ll readily recommend Dracula as a solid, well-produced hour of entertainment, and commend the acting performances specifically of Michaela O’Toole, Shannon Hiebner, and Baden Dowie, as a piece of fantasy it offers a tantalising amount and then fails to deliver a conclusion that would make it a classic at its endpoint.
Dracula is on at the NELM Theatre at 10:00 and 20:30 on July 7.
By Bracken Lee-Rudolph