When a story is as well known as Dracula it falls to those in the arts to give new life to the well-trodden tale.
Theatre makers and film directors have sunk their teeth into Bram Stoker’s work almost continually since its release in 1897, creating a huge portfolio of vampire stories which draw on the novel’s themes in many different ways.
Writer and director Dan Clarke continues the trend for different readings with Progress Theatre’s latest production, in which he places the novel’s women front and centre – quite literally from the moment the play opens with flashing lights illuminating a trio of ghastly vampire sisters.
But it is unclear what Clarke’s intention is of bringing Stoker’s female characters to the fore. Is it to cast light on the silent Gothic woman – often reduced to a weak, helpless victim – or to have some fun with the other Gothic woman, the predator?
Only two male actors appear in the piece, Matt Urwin as a pale and insipid Jonathan Harker, and Ian Blecher, who almost veers into a caricature with his Van Helsing. Both are almost inconsequential, much like the weak Gothic woman, acting as a support to the other characters around them.
And so it is left to each of the vampire sisters to double up as one of Lucy’s male suitors, but the purpose of it is unclear. This is not a feminist reading, quite clearly shown in the way every woman in the play is reduced, rather depressingly, to nothing more than a product of her sexual desire. Even the conservative Mina (Megan Turnell) falls foul of her insatiable sexual appetite when she immediately turns to Dracula to relieve her carnal desires after finding out her husband is impotent.
Sexuality and vampires have long gone hand in hand, Twilight made an entire franchise out of it, but here it feels gratuitous. The thrill of Dracula is its subtlety, the threat of the sisters sinking their fangs into Harker but not quite getting there, and the slow build up of the Count seeping into normal society.
But there is no subtlety here. A bed literally stands centre stage, with the vampire sisters stripping off their jackets and hats – markers of their male roles – and disappearing behind a curtain to devour their next victim. If there was any doubt in their intention, a saucy wink as they disappear behind it clears it up quickly.
Perhaps then it is the predator we are faced with, but there is no depth to it. We have no background story for the sisters, we only see their bloodlust and desire, and it makes for a gory but uninspiring view.
Of course it is nearly Halloween, and the production’s ghostly theatrics are fun for this time of year. The sisters, played by Belinda Duffy, Neve Murray and Rebecca Douglas, have some fantastically freaky nuances, and all create a strong contrast between their bloodthirsty vampires and male suitors.
There are also playful scares when characters appear suddenly, an eerie soundtrack, and bucket loads of blood, but it all feels a bit hammy. Things also veer into the all out ridiculous with a monstrous battle in Dracula’s crypt, but it seems as if it’s all part of the fun by that point.
It may well be confused in its intention, and adds little to the genre, but for a silly Halloween scarefest it fits the bill.
Dracula is at Progress Theatre in The Mount in Reading until Saturday 29 October. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.
I was invited to review Dracula so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.