Pros: Glorious venue, with an ingenious introduction.
Cons: Lacking in atmosphere and too dependant on slamming doors.
Tea Break Theatre’s Dracula in Sutton House began with an excellent premise: a tour. A delightful tour guide popped into the courtyard to pick us all up for our tour of the oldest house in Hackney. The first twenty minutes were well managed as we were ushered with our wine glasses from normality, to the darkened core of the old house.
Things grew unnerving: our guide began to get disoriented, forgetting her words, becoming distracted by things we couldn’t see; it was delicious. It became apparent that the actors were already amongst the audience, and slowly, the story began to play out in our midst. A tremendous set-up.
When site-specific theatre works well it can be wonderful. Tea Break Theatre have chosen a terrific location, an eerie story perfect for the month of October, and clearly worked hard on workshopping the text. I don’t feel they pulled it off, but I also think Dracula is very challenging to stage effectively.
Bram Stoker’s novel was released in 1897; Stoker himself penned a play-text of the novel that played that same year before the book release, albeit to only two paying customers. All plays intended for public performance had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for approval and licensing. Following this, the play could only be advertised 90 minutes before playing, which helps explain the tiny audience. Vampire fiction proliferates; Dracula has been portrayed onscreen in countless incarnations. Vampires onstage? Dracula onstage? Doesn’t happen often. It is a difficult character to play for genuine scares in the flesh.
When I looked in the programme and saw the infamous count was absent from the character list, I was disappointed, but this may have been the wiser choice by the company presenting to a cine-literate audience. Swooping in wearing a black cape with fangs and a blood drizzled chin would likely only end in laughs. The count’s presence was suggested, through open windows and suddenly spurting blood, potentially elegant devices; but when performing amongst a crowd, those beside the actors can both see and hear the actor manipulating their blood devices, resulting in a failed illusion, a stark awareness of reality, and a sense of embarrassment.
Performing in the midst of the audience carries risks, particular when the content is intended to be frightening or unsettling. The problem with this production is the play is clearly meant to be atmospheric, but when actors invade one’s personal space and breathe heavily in one’s face with bared teeth, it’s almost guaranteed to elicit smiles and nervous laughter, and any tension or atmosphere is down the drain.
I feel a stationary seated audience confined to one chamber of the house may have resulted in a more atmospheric show as it would have leant a sense of entrapment, a strong element in the novel; coupled with the Blair Witch-y sound effects, lights going on the blink and actors screaming through other rooms, perhaps this would have made a better show.
I didn’t find this a great show, but it certainly didn’t bore me. It’s always interesting to see work that experiments with form, and might cause people who think theatre is only West End glitz to reconsider it as the art form it is.
Author: Bram Stoker
Director: Katharine Armitage
Producers: Molly Small, Chris Dobson & Kat Armitage
Designer: Isobel Power Smith
Booking Link: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/events/f1a24d94-b623-4f9b-bad2-3ac24c5ce95c/pages/details
Booking until: 4 November 2017