Dracula is so much a part of popular culture that it's difficult to retell it in a way that feels new, while still staying true to the spirit of the original. Creation Theatre walked this fine line with effortless poise, putting on a production that was intriguing and frightening, with an unexpected sprinkling of laugh-out-loud humour.
We arrived at Blackwell's as part of an excited crowd, and were shown into the Norrington Room, which was lit with spooky lamps and candles, and filled with a recording of what I can only describe as 'Fifties shopping music', a weird dissonance that set up the atmosphere of the play. My companion and I were seated, appropriately enough, in the Psychology alcove, surrounded by books with titles like Madness and Supernormal - themes that soon came across when the play began, and Mina and her psychologist, both backlit and behind screens, began discussing her disturbing dreams.
Sophie Greenham and Chris York had a challenge ahead of them, switching between the seven or eight characters retained for this stripped-down edition of the story, without losing the tension that built throughout the performance. They were at their strongest as the central couple, Mina and Jonathan Harker, both grappling with the ghosts (or rather, the monsters) of their recent pasts, whilst awkwardly negotiating the early stages of their marriage. Greenham's Doctor Seward, with her mix of scepticism and suppressed emotion, was another thoroughly engaging character. Van Helsing was less interesting, more caricaturish, although this is true in the source material as well - and several of his antics, including a quick pause to flip through a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, had the audience laughing.
I've spent many hours in the Norrington Room, and wasn't sure how it would work as the setting for a play, but Creation used the space well. Much of the action took place in 'Lucy's library', but as the story unfolded, the actors moved between the central stage, the walkways, and the tops of bookshelves, giving a sense of height and depth to the performance. The story itself was also told on different and unexpected levels, chopping up Stoker's plot and matching pieces together, so that Lucy and Renfield's declines mirrored Jonathan's. The switching between past and present, and the breaking up of Dracula's central plot strands, made a familiar story fresh and interesting. We know what happens to Lucy, what happened to Jonathan, and what will happen to Mina, but Creation retold the tale with twists and turns that kept me guessing as to how everything would play out.
The greatest strength of this performance was the part that I was most sceptical about on my way in - the use of audio-visual projections as part of the storytelling. Lucy is seen almost entirely on film, sometimes projected on one of the two large windows that loomed over the stage, sometimes on a suitcase, and sometimes, as her story spiralled towards its conclusion, as a fragmented figure projected straight onto the books themselves. Dracula is a voice, or an animated bat at the window, or a pair of glowing red eyes, all the more terrifying because he never appears as a tangible character. Mina's conversations with Lucy involved Greenham speaking to and answering a recording, something extremely difficult to pull off without mistiming and taking the audience out of the moment - however, it was done so smoothly that I often forgot Lucy wasn't speaking to us live, in any sense of the word.
Creation's new production of Dracula uses innovative techniques and staging to tell the story, while simultaneously taking it back to its roots. Sexuality, identity, and the boundary between good and evil are questioned throughout, held up to close scrutiny, and found to be fragile and fragmenting. The horror aspects of the story are brought to the forefront, and there are many moments that are genuinely frightening - Creation have designated the play as 'suitable for ages 12+' for good reason. If you've had your fill of sympathetic or sparkly vampires, Creation's Dracula will serve as an excellent reminder of how scary these monsters originally were - and how tempting it is to let them in.