Dracula returns to Whitby

This autumn sees NBC producing a new series of Dracula, starring Brit actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors), hard on the heels of the Twilights and other TV vampires.

Meanwhile, this summer saw theatre company Heartbreak Productions tour the UK with an open-air version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, performed in Whitby Abbey with a new take on the 1897 classic. So what is the new take on this horror, and how has its original take been received by audiences?

Heartbreak director Peter Mimmack explains: “We really enjoyed performing near the famous locations Stoker mentions in his novel: the bridge, the lighthouse, the 199 steps, to name just a few. It was amazing to really feel we are part of the town that directly inspired Stoker’s timeless horror.”

Heartbreak playwright David Kerby-Kendall, who adapted the novel for the tour, says: “We’ve taken a dark but original and humourous approach to this iconic Gothic novel which we think Stoker would have enjoyed. We knew Whitby audiences will enjoy seeing the classic novel their hometown inspired coming to life—or death—once again.”

Kerby-Kendall says his inspiration was “keeping the ethos of the novel”. Unlike some recent productions, which update Dracula into the 21st century with the characters sporting iPhones, he wanted to keep the play in its original Victorian era.

He explains he was drawn to the play with the poetry of the Stoker’s prose, describing the inspiration from lines such as: “but I felt it all the more, like unshed tears” and “sleep has no place that it can call its own”. This is why his adaptation has Lucy, after being drained of blood, say she feels as “pale and wan as snowscape in December”.

He adds that one of the main challenges was setting one of the world’s most famous horrors in incongruously bright “summer sunshine” during the open-air tour.

“It was a real challenge as a writer, adapting one of the most iconic novels ever written for an outdoors environment,” he says. “You have to be true to the novel but still keep it fresh and keep the humour. We needed to keep the tension, emotion, anticipation, horror and adventure.”

Kerby-Kendall’s adaptation has an unusual amount of doubling up in the cast: the same actor plays both Van Helsing and Dracula. He also removes both Quincy and Holmwood from the script, and has Lucy marry Seward, whose name is changed to “Arthur Seward” to combine her two suitors. The actor who plays Jonathan Harker is also Renfield, which Kerby-Kendall did to show both characters are “used by Dracula, and suffer at his hands in different ways”.

Heartbreak’s ending has a hidden twist that purists may find disturbing, and the play also features a framing device where the audience stands in a funeral mourners, gathered to pay their final respects to Jonathan Harker. Kerby-Kendall’s script mentions the need to talk about the secret around his life and the “unknown legend of something evil” as no one knows exactly what happened, so that the story can be buried with him.

The audience acts as funeral mourners and joins in the hymn singing during the play, while the story of Harker’s life is explained before the audience returns to the play’s “present day” of the funeral.

Kerby-Kendall explains that the framing device, often used in Victorian literature such as Wuthering Heights and Jekyll and Hyde, “draws the audience into the play and makes it more accessible”.

“The audiences have loved it,” says Kerby-Kendall. “We have the audience getting into character and dressing up in vampire gear to feel even more part of the show.”

So it would seem, whether in his birthplace of Whitby or on NBC’s screen, Stoker's Count still has a bite in 2013.