Timeless Halloween stories about creatures of the night still remain at the core of this creepy festive season; similarly, even with modern adaptations of vampires such as the Twilight series’ Cullen family and Smith’s Salvatore brothers, traditionalists will insist that the original Dracula is still the scariest and darkest of them all.
This season, Ellie King of the Royal Canadian Theatre Company brings her version of Dracula to the stage — three stages, in fact, in Surrey, Vancouver, and Maple Ridge. Ellie King has been wanting to bring Dracula to life in her own vision for over 20 years, but something had always stopped her. It was either not the right time, or she couldn’t find the right people to cast, or there wasn’t enough funding. That is, until now.
Based on the 1927 John Balderston-Hamilton Deane stage version, King still makes this production her own, namely through two main changes: the creation of a “steampunk universe” and a change in the gender of Abraham Van Helsing, who becomes Anna Van Helsing.
King felt that the world of Dracula “lent itself well to living in a steampunk universe.” That change translated to an innovative aesthetic that combines themes of technology with 19th-century industry designs in terms of stage and costume design, something she believes will be very interesting to see onstage.
Indeed, when I saw the performance, I appreciated the aesthetic and the way the set changed, reassembling the background like turning the cogs in a machine. The fog served two purposes: besides being used to create an eerie cloak, the harbinger of Dracula, it also called to mind the steam of the industrial era.
King’s creation of a female archenemy of Dracula was in reaction to the sexual repression in those days. She already had susceptible female characters fall prey to Dracula, as in the case of an unlucky Lucy Seward, and wanted to see a strong woman comfortable in her own sexuality take on the vampire, one who could resist his supernatural powers and stand her own ground. “There is a layer of sexual tension between Dracula and Van Helsing,” King remarked, sounding almost gleeful. “It will be very interesting to watch it unfold.”
Speaking of Dracula, King emphasizes that her version of Dracula will not be for young children. “I’ve had some people watch us during rehearsals and go, “Oh, wow, that’s terrifying.” Yes, Dracula won’t be some Twilight teen-angst vampire. “He’s a scary, unpleasant animal, and we’ll be exploring his very animal side.”
Parts of Dracula were genuinely chilling to the bone, delivering on King’s vision to create a terrifying, animalistic character. King definitely pushed the stage lights to their full use, creating intense suspense and anticipation when the lights would go out right at the most climactic moments. I could almost feel the audience holding its breath as the lights flashed on and off in lilting, dramatic rhythm, unwrapping the scene in vignettes.
The only thing I was disappointed by was the ending. There was a huge buildup of tension throughout the entire production that fell flat at the vanquishing of Count Dracula. It was so anticlimactic that I was jerked out of the fantasy. I actually just sat there, blinking, as the coffin rolled away, the curtains parted, and the cast members lined up to take a bow. That was it?
Dracula’s last breath was overdramatized and campy — the very thing that King did not want her production to be, and it was just so out of place. It was a very unsatisfactory end to an otherwise outstanding production.
Dracula is presented by the Royal Canadian Theatre Company until October 31. For more information, visit rctc.com.