Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Blood is life. Yet, with it flowing unseen beneath our skin we often tend to forget its importance. Four of Swords’ Dr Dracula, written by co-artistic director Philip Kingslan-John, forcefully reminds us of its magnitude in a piece of promenade theatre which intersects the history of blood diseases with cultural myths of the vampire. Drawing on the research of Dr Luke Pilling (Exeter University Medical School) and Professor Nick Groom (Exeter University English Department), Dr Dracula exemplifies how the arts can engage with science to produce incredibly compelling and thought-provoking theatre.
Dr Dracula centres on the fall-out from an intense, sexually charged love affair between two vampires, threading across the centuries as the immortal pair try to navigate a life alone among humans. Beginning in the grounds on an atmospheric night of blustering wind and lashing rain, the plot starts in the 18th century with the vampire Vladimir (Miall Yates) seeking to escape the trials of immortality. However, his former lover Carmilla (Sarah White), who he originally infected, vengefully resurrects him, leading to a tantalising plot of revenge and thwarted desire. The audience then divides, one half following Vladimir’s life, and the other Carmilla’s. Following Vladimir’s story, we move through the house as time moves with us, crossing from the Romantic period into the 22nd century, culminating in the final confrontation between Vladimir and Carmilla where both audiences are brought together again.
Each scene is stamped with the marks of its period. In the 18th century we see the cross-cultural debate on the best mode of vampire slaying, from throwing and counting seeds, to crosses and holy water. As we enter the Romantic period, it shifts to the more popularised gothic vampire, with the dark-haired Luna (Sally Geake) in her virginal white dress savagely falling victim to Vladimir and his charms. With the play’s journey forward into an unknown future, technological developments, like synthetic blood, add a new element to the drama. The importance of blood reverberates throughout, with the 22nd century Dr Joanna Seward (Heidi Dorshler) poignantly commenting that her own blood conditions would once have identified her as a ‘vampire’, leaving us to consider our own judgements and society’s Othering. While this cross-century plot has a lot of content for an 80-minute production, Kingslan-John successfully creates a well-paced narrative. It manages to delve into the central themes and leaves room for substantial character development, Vladimir’s behaviour in particular both touching and horrifying us.
The strong cast, directed by Philip Kingslan-John and Sarah White, are key to the production’s success, establishing a convincing sense of each time period, and skilfully shifting the tone from lighter moments of humour, to intense moments of horror. Mike Gilpin as Dr John Polidori is particularly notable, constructing a slimy character who hides his insecurities with inflated self-importance. Sally Geake as Luna Baring-Gould is also worth mentioning for her convincing transition from a flighty young woman, to one undergoing the torture of vampiric transformation, illustrated by the taut hold of her body, her intense wide eyes, and finally the lustful bite of her fiancé.
Knightshayes provides the perfect backdrop to Dr Dracula. Its gothic charm accents the darker elements of the play and its historic setting lends authenticity to the older scenes while charging the later with nostalgia. Lighting and sound are used to the right measure, subtly adding an extra layer to the most powerful moments. The final scene is an incredible spectacle, the hooded cast circling with burning torches in the lower levels of the garden while the final stand-off between Vladimir and Carmilla unfolds above.
Four of Swords have devised an exceptional piece which fully immerses us in the pain of love, disease and living. While the occasional stumble on a line and unconvincing accents detract slightly from its polish, Dr Dracula is overall a magnificent spectacle. The final image of the vampires’ red eyes burning out from a wash of bloody light and fire guarantee we will not forget the importance of blood any time soon.
Photo Credits: Matt Austin
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