An uncanny chain of events, terrifying epiphanies, all topped off with a feminist statement of modern love – this is Leah O’Grady’s Dracula. An adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Victorian Gothic epistolary novel, the fragmented narrative is arranged into a theatrical plot in which the Countess Dracula (Gracie Oddie-James) uses her powers of seduction to wreak havoc upon modern civilisation.
I was filled with anticipation upon arriving at the Pilch Studio, and was delighted to find a set filled with antique furniture reminiscent of Stoker’s era. This unassuming setting, transported to a contemporary London flat, is home to solicitor Jonathan Harker (Samuel King) and his sensitive yet engaging fiancée Mina (Gillian Konko). Mina says goodbye to Jonathan as he heads off on business to Transylvania, a fleeting moment of human connection before the solicitor stumbles into the sinister hands of the countess.
A restless and lonely woman confined to a remote castle, Oddie-James’ countess is the picture of feminine mysticism: unlike Stoker’s blood-thirsty masculine Count, this shift provides a fresh lens through which the audience can see how disaster comes from a desire for control. The image still seared into my memory is the moment in which Dracula perches herself next to Jonathan and dangles a piece of paper into her mouth. A creepy sub-human surrealism contrasted with the innocent is at the heart of the play’s escalation from a simple story of human connection to a sensational Gothic drama.
Back in Whitby, we see the friendship between Mina and her confidante Lucy (Macy Stasiak) as they navigate prospective marriages and their place in the world. Sitting on a cliff overlooking a beach, Mina writes poetry and Lucy paints. These simple moments of connection demonstrate the humanity that is at the core of this Gothic mystery. Stasiak and Konko’s interaction brought to life an endearing one-of-a-kind friendship. Mina’s rational sensitivity and Lucy’s charming sassy attitude is a delightful dynamic of opposites, yet the countess does not hesitate to use her powers of seduction in blighting this friendship, taking Lucy for her own. Perhaps the most captivating Gothic turn appears in Dracula’s eerie appearances moments before she is to bring disaster. Her shadowy silhouette behind the room divider spoke to me in its fusion of tradition and modernity. A Victorian drawing-room and the shifting nature of a female seductress, Dracula inhabits Mina’s consciousness and thus ‘queer Dracula’ is realised, blurring the rigid lines of Victorian sexuality in favour of a more inclusive and psychologically profound turn of events.
Amid this grief and uncertainty, comic relief comes in the form of Lucy’s three love interests. Quincy the loud American frat boy (Alex Foster), asylum administrator Seward (Sam Burles), and posh Durham student Arthur (Oliver Tanner) all bring humorous individual personalities. I found the scene in which the entire group dances around singing Take Me Home, Country Roads to be a beautiful testament to their camaraderie, that they are still able to find joy and forget about the looming horror and tense atmosphere. The three boys, united in their love for Lucy, along with Jonathan and Mina, are headed up by Van Helsing (Bailey Finch-Robson), a “middle-aged professor who speaks like a Victorian goblin.” Possessing a strange insight into the minds of evil, Finch-Robson’s German accent and meticulous physicality added to the character’s realism as well as creating an air of foreign mystery, creating the impression that we do not really know who Van Helsing is.
Making her Oxford drama debut as Renfield, Clara Wade’s performance stood out in the harrowing accuracy with which she portrayed insanity. The discomfort I experienced in watching her performance – as a shivering, debilitated shell of a person imprisoned in an asylum – speaks to its brilliance. A woman “fighting for her soul”, she is the image of the consequences of neglected mental illness, challenging the antiquated notion of a raging lunatic who is nothing but trouble.
It is impressive how O’Grady manages to weave myriad contemporary themes into a Victorian epistolary plot, whilst still retaining the original Gothic mysticism. The dramatic plot is never fragmented or incoherent, yet it still possesses a degree of ambiguity so that the audience can discover each turn of events along with the characters. This adaptation blurs the lines of antagonist and protagonist in arranging a unique cast of characters plagued by their own demons – making who the true villain is the core question of the work. I can guarantee that I am not alone in hoping for more ingenious theatrical adaptations from Serendipity Productions, as their fresh spin on classic works is an asset to the Oxford drama scene.