Thursday 12th October 2023, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Rating: ★ ★
Attending Dracula: Mina’s Reckoning at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre on 12th October, the show’s second night in the capital, was at times well worth the effort of sliding on the opera pumps, and the unabashedly feminine perspective of the performance made sure that the auditorium understood the point of the play from nearly the very beginning, but in the long run it fell short. At times, this performance felt more like a goth-girl fanfiction of the original novel more than it felt like a reimagining conceived by some of Scotland’s most esteemed female playwrights.
For the first half of Dracula: Mina’s Reckoning, a production devised by Morna Pearson for the National Theatre of Scotland, one could be forgiven for forgetting that it wasn’t a completely conventional stage performance of Bram Stoker’s well-known story with some minor changes to the script, intended mainly to win cheap laughs. Nonetheless, if one stays to the completion of the second half of the performance, which some did not, one will at least find that the climax of the story is completely reworked into one with a notionally feminist message of total refusal to cooperate with the expectations of society. This could be a good thing, but it is not executed well.
In this performance, the story of Dracula is reworked into a story of nineteenth-century women longing for freedom from patriarchal oppression and the mundane life that came with a woman’s work in Victorian Britain, and who find in Count Dracula a man who can make an offer they can’t refuse. The character of Mina Murray, who is brought to life by Danielle Jam, succumbs to Dracula’s offer of supernatural power, in other words the power to overcome the limitations imposed by patriarchy. Her decision to accept this power is her titular reckoning. While Lucy Westenra and Mina are each consumed by expectations to marry in the first half of the performance, the second half is a marked departure in the way power between the characters is structured, with the condescending Doctor Seward, portrayed by Maggie Bain, being beaten to death, his head bashed into the very stage itself, by the now supernatural Mina in the middle of the second act.
Doctor Seward is introduced as a character who is supposed to protect hysterical women in the mental asylum he presides over, but whom through endless condescension of the women and reductionism of women’s mental illness to ‘lunar unreasonableness’ becomes the true antagonist of the play. It is this that indicates Dracula is freeing Mina and her friends from something. This twist is the only key difference between this adaptation and the original story, which is a shame. Thanks to the flat and dull characterisations of the male characters, the twist is so predictable that by the interval this theatregoer had already talked through the entire second half with the person in the next seat.
Count Dracula is portrayed by the esteemed actress of stage and screen, Liz Kettle. One might at first think that it would be somewhat jarring to give male pronouns to a Dracula with such a profoundly female physical presence as Kettle’s, but in the context established by this play, of real power and intelligence being solely in the possession of women, it makes sense to cast a female person in a male role. Nonetheless, a Countess Dracula would’ve made perfect sense too. Kettle’s Dracula possesses a strong physical presence, being described in another review of this play as ‘voluminous’ in her black cloak, but his characterisation is lacking in depth compared with other even relatively simple interpretations of the character on screen, up to and including the anti-heroic father figure of the BBC’s Young Dracula from the mid-noughties. Kettle spends little time on stage, has no particularly memorable introduction or memorable lines, and is obscured by the set and lighting for most of those brief moments when she is present. There is no moment where Dracula dominates the set and monologues vaingloriously in the way that it is perhaps tempting to make such a memorable character do, which leaves the character feeling unexplored and the gothic element of the story falling completely flat.
There are practical criticisms to make, notably about production choices in this play, and the quality with which these are pulled off. One such example of a major production choice is the complicated and dangerous looking set, which gives the impression that you could really cut yourself on it and give yourself tetanus or be crushed by a falling gargoyle. This can be praised to some extent as giving very discernible levels to the stage, which could theoretically be used to demonstrate power imbalances. Unfortunately, this felt incorrectly utilised during the performance, in which characters were often being obscured or even at times obstructed by the scaffolding and often unable to use the levels effectively. Because the surface area on which the players could really act was so small compared with what it would have been if they had simply used all of the stage, very little acting was actually allowed to occur.
Secondly, there are criticisms that one can make about how sound is used throughout the performance. The earlier review referenced before comments on the play’s musical score, however this attendee cannot claim to have really noticed that there was a score at all, but more like a series of sore groans interspersed throughout the performance, often getting in the way of the dialogue. This is not the fault of the composer, the contribution of whom to the play’s atmosphere might well have been good, had it not been for the poor implementation of that soundtrack, and the unfortunate lack of care that seemed to go into selecting the volume at which it was replayed, which was far too high. Given that this was the tour’s first night at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, this is perhaps an easily fixable technical error that theatregoers later in the tour wouldn’t experience.
This performance, with its practical imperfections and disappointing underutilisation of an experienced actress in the role that drew the crowd, is perhaps still worth seeing, if not for anything other than the likeable way in which it doesn’t take itself too seriously. However, the fact that this performance needed to be a collaboration between Morna Pearson and the National Theatre of Scotland when it is changed so minimally from the original idea isn’t a good sign, and the twist which distinguishes the play as an independent work of art from the novel comes far too late in the second half of the performance, and is far too easy to see coming, to be impactful. Its feminist message deserves to be heard in a nineteenth-century context, but for a contemporary audience who should know much better, the message feels, much like the score, to be under-developed, a little bit one-note, and perhaps unnecessary.