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Review: Kip Williams’ Dracula Caps Gothic Cine-Theatre Trilogy Playfully
Zahra Newman as Mina in Kip Williams’ Dracula. Newman plays a total of 23 characters during the Sydney Theatre Company’s production. Photograph: Daniel Boud

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sydney Theatre Company’s 2020 cine-theatre masterpiece, made director Kip Williams an overnight industry superstar.

That production, adapted from the book by Williams into a kaleidoscopic study of desire, sin, morality, and self, was a staggering technical and artistic achievement that saw a single performer playfully and powerfully interacting with live and pre-recorded feeds. After sell-out return seasons and a tour, the work went global with a smash-hit, Olivier Award-winning West End season, and will transfer to Broadway in 2025.

This success has led to Williams stepping down from STC at the end of the year. Dracula, the final installment in Williams’ gothic cine-theatre trilogy that began with Dorian Gray, is the last production he’ll direct for the company during his tenure.

This interest in cine-theatre has always preoccupied and shaped Williams’ work – a 2015 production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer used clever angles and devastating close-ups to create an intimate hothouse of emotion; video used as a melodramatic commentator in Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul; and a surveillant take on Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

The cameras, screens, and video feeds that Williams uses to emphasize, agitate, and reveal layers of a narrative will be the biggest part of his legacy.

And Dracula is the perfect send-off: it’s a clever and playful production that borrows cinematic tropes and camera angles from early horror films, monster flicks, and other cult classics to tell the story of the mysterious Count. A few key shots play direct homage to iconic screen vampires, and these aesthetic touches continue throughout the play.

After the too-dense Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde in 2022 – the second part of the trilogy – Williams and his collaborators (including designer Marg Horwell, lighting designer Nick Schlieper, and composer Clemence Williams) have returned to the formula that worked best: Dracula features one remarkable actor who creates a world from a handful of props, wigs, and a breezy interplay between her onstage performance and the pre-taped selves she acts against.

The star is Zahra Newman (who appeared in Williams’ Julius Caesar). Newman has a gift for telegraphing intimacy to her audience, and she is conspiratorial here – we’re on the adventure with her as Jonathan Harker, Mina, Dr. Jack Seward, and the others who discover that vampires are real – and the biggest one of all really wants their blood.

We’re also treated to her wildly eccentric Van Helsing, and of course her red-headed, lip-licking, extravagantly evil Dracula, an indulgent horror caricature. Even Newman’s three female vampires play on the frequent use of the word “voluptuous” in the text to describe them, creating an exaggerated, unreal feminine sexuality.

We’re all just playing here, the production seems to say. There’s no real threat to your neck.

All characters, in Newman and Williams’ hands, become larger-than-life pop-culture remixes that make room for our familiarity with the story and with broader vampiric lore (an onstage reveal of flowering garlic stalks gets a hearty, knowing laugh). Call it all music-video horror – an Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) of evil; an I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That) of gothic; a Like a Prayer of crucifixes.

Composer Clemence Williams has created an enjoyably referential score that builds tension with drumbeats like heartbeats, a thudding reminder of all those blood-pumping, blood-wanting, thematic undertones that make vampire stories allegories for repressed desire, though this production – much like Dorian Gray – makes more of a suggestion or punchline of the desire metaphor than it does a genuine exploration. Everyone almost kisses. Everyone is almost seducing or seduced. An overture is designed to be met with chuckles. We’re all just playing here, the production seems to say. There’s no real threat to your neck.

Craig Wilkinson is new to the trilogy’s creative team as video designer, and his approach is refreshingly different from, but in clear conversation with, the two previous works. This makes sense: while both Dorian Gray and Jekyll and Hyde were novels written in third person narrative, and the characters recited those (abridged) texts as they performed while the cameras built scenes around them, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel.

Playing with the novel’s form isn’t new (more than 200,000 people are subscribed to Dracula Daily, an email newsletter that delivers each missive from the book to your email inbox in chronological order every year). But, in this cine-theatre world, it’s sly, fun, and novel enough to feel distinct.

The cameras capture confessionals; journal entries become direct-address monologues (an old, deeply theatrical narrative style that forms a nice bridge between the video feeds and the fact of a singular body onstage). This up-close personal camera style adds an enjoyable informality to the production.

As the play unfolds, Dracula feels increasingly like a sequel to Dorian Gray. New techniques keep it humming, and there’s an ease to its storytelling and direction that suggest Williams’ deeper, more assured skillset. But it borrows liberally from that show’s successful playbook, including the ways Norvill and Newman transition between characters; how driving club beats represent when we enter the more sexually free den of the monster; and even mirrors the moment a musical number – this time a live one by Newman – kicks the dramatic stakes up a notch and propels us into a deeper well of feeling.

Dracula continues Williams’ preoccupation with identity, desire, and the lure of a life beyond social expectations, but it feels more familiar and gestural than groundbreaking, more self-aware than interrogative, more like a welcome opportunity to revisit old tricks than to break the mold. It’s a victory lap from some of Australia’s most in-demand artistic talents: well-made, well-earned, and well worth seeing.

  • Dracula will be showing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, from 2 July until 4 August.

Source: Particle News