Delighting in Darkness: the Seduction of shake & stir theatre co’s Dracula
Words by Nick Duddy
‘It’s dark, thrilling, chilling and sexy, religious, good versus evil, and it deals with some powerful stuff that human nature responds to…’
From the nineteenth century onwards, Western society’s fascination with vampirism has only grown. John William Polidori’s 1819 short story ‘The Vampyre,’ Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 gothic novella Carmilla, F.W Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, to name a few, are all testaments to the vampire sensation.
Innumerable films and a spate of recent television series — the Vampire Diaries, True Blood, American Horror Story et al — only further emphasise our cultural curiosity with these fanged fiends. Be it through ink or image, on the stage or on the screen, there is evidently a demand for the vampire.
But why? What is it about the mythology and folklore of these blood-sucking, soul-sapping creatures that captivates us?
For Nick Skubaj, who is currently — and bravely — undertaking the eponymous role in shake & stir theatre co’s production of Dracula, the answer rests with the universal and transformative power of the source material: Bram Stoker’s seminal 1897 epistolary novel Dracula.
‘Dracula is a classic,’ Skubij explains, ‘it exists in a sumptuous gothic world… it’s a classic for a reason — people from all ages get something out of it.’
For those of you who have (somehow) evaded Stoker’s ubiquitous story, Dracula depicts lawyer Jonathan Harker’s dangerous encounter with the mysterious Count Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe. Amidst a maelstrom of dark seduction, love and lust (and of course, blood), Harker and his team work to stop Dracula before his vampirism invades — and infects — London.
shake & stir theatre co, a Queensland-based theatre company formed in 2006 by Ross Balbuziente, Nelle Lee, and Skubij himself, started adapting Stoker’s novel in 2014 on the back of the resurgence of the vampire genre. From the outset, Skubij, Balbuziente, and Lee (who all appear in the production) identified the challenge of ‘wanting to stick to the essence of the original novel.’
Directed by Michael Futcher, and featuring additional performances by Adele Querol, Michael Wahr, and David Whitney, Dracula has been receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews throughout its national tour. Skubij ascribes this to the heightened visceral and sensual power of shake & stir’s atmospheric production.
‘We wanted the audience to feel the cold, to feel the wind on their faces, and to feel that chill of that environment with these characters,’ says Skubij.
‘Going back to the idea of the environment and the physical location itself, we really wanted to give our team of designers the challenge of creating an immersive physical space… it’s a big, physical set… revolving stages, castle backdrops, lighting and technology.’
But shake & stir also acknowledged the challenge of creating compelling characters that would fit into the dark world of Dracula. Many actors — Bela Lugosi (the source of the infamous misattributed quotation: ‘I vant to such your blood!), Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman (and, subsequently, Mr Burns), to name a few — have embodied Dracula. However, in ignoring these cinematic depictions, Skubij was determined to create his own version of the vampire.
‘The first thing I did was make the deliberate choice not to watch any film versions. I was really fascinated by the stillness and the mystery of the character. I went into a place where rather than being overt and out there with the characterisation — as a lot of filmic versions have done — the pointy collared, widow’s peak… I wanted to pare it right back and present him almost neutrally, really still, in a place that doesn’t give a lot away.’
Evidently, Skubij enjoys the challenge of constructing his own, fully-fleshed version of the ‘timeless’ character.
‘I’m in the makeup chair about an hour and a half before each show to put the physical first version of the character on,’ he explains.
Yet in building his character, Skubij was determined to transcend mere caricature. As with the other theatrical elements of shake & stir’s production, Skubij wants to defy audience expectations and preconceptions.
‘There is the expectation that a lot of people come into the show with what they think Dracula should and shouldn’t be… my goal is to flip that on their head, and give people something that they didn’t think Dracula should or shouldn’t be.’
‘Or, in other words, to create a bloody (pun intended) good show.’
shake & stir’s production of Dracula is running at the Adelaide Festival Centre from September 7–16.
Tickets are available at: www.adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au/events/dracula.