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Dracula at Kirkstall Abbey, 18th July

Here's another thing I saw recently with ms_siobhan and planet_andy: a theatrical production of Bram Stoker's Dracula put on by these people in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. It was a blissful summer's day at the height of the heatwave, and the show was staged in what must once have been the abbey cloisters, but is now a large square enclosure carpeted with grass and overlooked by ruined towers and flocks of birds. We took picnics and folding chairs, and settled down in the early evening sunshine, while members of the cast circulated doing a little in-character banter:

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The set-up was that they were the staff of an undertakers' company: Drakesmith and Graveston, services to the dead since 1822. They had been charged with conducting Jonathan Harker's funeral service, and were circulating around the mourners to enquire how we were connected with the deceased and sell us the following order of service for two florins:

Order of service

Two pounds were agreed to be an acceptable exchange rate for the florins, and of course the order of service was also the programme for the show. As the performance began, the undertakers explained that as part of the funeral service they would be reading out extracts from Jonathan Harker's diary at his family's request, and as they did so they switched into the roles of the characters from the story, acting it out pretty much as it unfolds within the book. The letters, telegrams, diary entries and newspaper articles written by other characters were explained as having been pasted into Harker's diary as a complete record of his experiences. And although I was a little unsure about the use of the undertakers as a sort of framing device for the main story, in fact it worked pretty well. In between scenes, they discussed the strange events which they had been reading about with one another, wondering what might come next and how they might feel in the same situation - basically acting much like the chorus in a Greek tragedy to help bridge the gap between the real life of the audience and the fantastical world of the story.

You can't, of course, have very much in the way of complicated stage machinery or even exits and entrances when you are staging an outdoor show, so the performance relied very much on simple devices and the use of the audience's imagination. Coffins doubled as beds, steps, benches on the cliff at Whitby and seats in a railway carriage, while their lids served as castle doors when required, and the performers swiftly cast aside the cloak of one character or donned the skirts of another as they changed roles. But it all worked very effectively to sweep the imagination from craggy Transylvania one moment to bustling Victorian London the next. Indeed, the cast consisted of only five actors, with most of them doubling up not only as undertakers, but also as at least two characters each within the story. But again, the constraints proved a virtue, adding extra layers to the story. I especially liked the casting of the same actor as both Van Helsing and Dracula, which of course prevented the two from ever meeting of course but did position them very nicely as matched adversaries who have more in common than they would like to admit.

I was busy eating my picnic and then sipping the summery rose cocktail which I had prepared for the first hour or so of the show, but after that I realised that an outdoor performance in the sunshine meant that I could easily take photos without disturbing anybody. So I got to work, tweeting the results and prompting a lot of people to tweet back in response saying how cool it looked and they wished that they were there. You'll have to imagine the scene which took place at Castle Dracula, in Whitby and on the good ship Demeter in the first half of the story while I was eating and drinking, but these are the high points of the rest of the show:

2013-07-18 20.20.53
Dr. Seward does the rounds of his lunatic asylum. Renfrew, seen through the iron bars of his cell, is begging for a kitten.

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Back in Transylvania, Jonathan Harker has been being cared for by nuns after his trauma in Dracula's castle. The arrival of Mina, is enough to restore him to full strength and hope once again, and he shows his gratitude by proposing to her.

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In Whitby, Lucy has a mysterious illness, which Van Helsing and Seward attempt to treat via blood tranfusions.

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But this is the real source of her problems - a night visitor with eyes that burn.

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The captivated audience.

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Uh-oh - Mina is getting a night visitor now too!

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His demonic ways uncovered, Dracula has scarpered back to Transylvania by boat, while our heroes pursue him by train. The lady kneeling on the ground and dressed as one of the undertakers is moving the pole which she is holding to simulate the pistons on a steam train. (And my camera was rather starting to struggle at this stage, as the light faded).

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Finally, just as the sun behind us sank below the Leeds horizon, came the climactic scene in which they catch up with the Count in the Carpathians, also as the sun is setting. In a bit of a feminist twist on the novel, Dracula was dispatched at the end not by Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris (the latter of whom wasn't even in the play), but by Mina, who tricks him into thinking that she is still in his thrall, only to plunge a stake into his heart. An excellent ending to a really great evening's entertainment.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 10th, 2013 02:31 pm (UTC)
I'm really glad you've written this up - it was an excellent evenings entertainment and a really good production :-)
Aug. 10th, 2013 03:20 pm (UTC)
Yes, it certainly was! Thanks to you for letting me know about it. :-)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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