Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin **
The most famous and enduring characters don’t just overshadow their creations, they usually consume them. It’s easy to imagine the naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming, for instance, as a proto-James Bond, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s marvelling at the deductive methods of Dr Joseph Bell as rehearsal for Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Paul Walker’s new play about Bram Stoker for Ouroboros Theatre Company largely resists the temptation to glibly shape Stoker’s biography as just a preamble of inspirations leading to the invention of Dracula. But it is also shrewdly aware of the gothic expectations of its audience.
Walker and director Karl Shiels try to be scrupulous to the details of an Irish theatre manager who tangled with Oscar Wilde over a woman (an irony they don’t pursue), idolised the charismatic actor Henry Irving (to which they pay lots of attention) and harboured deep affection for the sensuous poetry of Walt Whitman (ditto). But they lean so hard on a sensational treatment that it feels like overcompensation – as though they became dissatisfied with their source material. The difficulty here is in giving Stoker’s story just enough bite without sucking the life out of it.
We begin at a high pitch, on the eve of Stoker’s death in 1912, with Roger Gregg’s elaborate and lengthy sound installation cluttered with quotes and period headlines (“Ripper Strikes Again!”), before we settle on Denis Conway’s Stoker, physically debilitated and rattled, with a cough that sounds uncannily like a creaking coffin lid.
Walker seizes upon the suggestion that Stoker died from syphilis, which Ruth McGill’s marginalised wife Florence and Gerard Adlum’s quietly resentful son, Noel, tactfully refer to as “gout”, using it to envelope the alternately raving and lucid Stoker with imagined visitations and sexual suggestions. That he was in thrall to the vampiric Irving (played with Mephistophelian relish by Robert O’Mahony) seems to be in little doubt. “I merely absorb the world around me; the monsters I see,” Stoker tells him in a rare moment of temerity. But the coy suggestion of his homosexual longings seems less like historical sleuthing than salacious speculation.
Similarly, several production ideas feel confusing and overheated, such as Conn Rogers, a three-foot-high performer in ghoulish make-up, playing the young Noel, or Conway flailing and screeching on the floor as he recalls the sale of the Lyceum Theatre without his consultation.
Oddly, the story is leading away from the supernatural to something much more natural – the quiet reconciliation between a family and a long absent father and husband, which this excitable treatment finds hard to put to rest.
Until November 11th