Saturday, April 29, 2017

Dracula - Shake & Stir

Review by John Lombard

Shake & Stir's chilling, atmospheric adaptation of Dracula makes excellent use of staging and lighting and sound to bring Bram Stoker's famous vampire convincingly to the stage.

From Jonathan Harker's opening journey through the Carpathian Mountains to the foreboding Castle Dracula, the play maintains a phenomenal sense of place, with an elevated set on a revolving stage enabling rapid scene changes.  Brilliant lighting and sound effects create each scene perfectly, so that the play can switch rapidly between locations, whether a ship in a violent storm or a cosy English manor house.

The play adheres closely to the structure of Bram Stoker's novel, which was written in the sometimes clunky epistolary format: characters record their experiences after the fact in journals and letters.  The play adapts this by relying heavily on pre-recorded voice over, although fortunately this is mainly used as a framing device rather than to drive scenes.  The play is mostly faithful to the story, although where tweaks are made they effectively heighten the drama.

Part of the allure of Stoker's story, and the reason it works so well on stage, is the dream-like logic it enforces about vampires.  The fiction is very firmly bound within hard rules.  Yes, vampires can turn into mist.  Yes, they can control the behaviour of animals.  But they are also wounded by garlic and must sleep in their native soil to maintain their power.  We don't need to see Dracula actually turn into mist, the sheer weirdness and specificity of the rules coupled with the conviction with which they are followed are enough to create the sensation of being chased through a nightmare by a monster.

Even with its excellent staging, the play would falter if the monster was not up to measure, and the play is blessed with Nick Skubij who effectively portrays both the wizened Count and his rejuvenated form.  From his first entrance it is clear that he has made a study of how the vampire should move, and his controlled athleticism makes him credible, sexy and sinister.  Adele Querol particularly shines as the flighty Lucy, Dracula's first victim, and through a sexual awakening transforms into an alluring vampire.

The rest of the cast understand their characters and play them well, although I thought Ross Balbuziente's Jack Seward came across as a little too dim.  The play is shot through with moments of distinctively Australian dry humour, which while they work well to break the tension are also jarring next to the English setting and tone of the rest of the play.

Shake & Stir's niche is the faithful, theatrically accomplished stage adaptation of a classic novel, and Dracula strengthens their claim to that place in Australian theatre.  Sinister, brilliantly accomplished, and extremely accessible, Dracula deserves an enthusiastic reception, especially from new audiences it might lure into the theatre: enter freely and of your own will.