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Theatre: Carmilla at Seven Arts, Leeds

I spent this evening at the Seven Arts theatre space in Chapel Allerton, where [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 had spotted that Spud Theatre were doing a production of Carmilla. We saw the same company do Dracula a few years ago (LJ / DW), and thought it was pretty decent for a local amateur production - certainly decent enough for us to be willing to try another of their shows. And we were right to do so, both coming out saying that we felt it had been better than the Dracula they'd done previously.

2018-01-19 19.42.03.jpg

Carmilla is a first-person story, told by a 19-year-old girl named Laura, and the way this production approached that was to have her character facing the audience directly and telling her story to them, punctuated by other actors entering and merging into scenes with her when she begins describing what other people said and did - at which points she turns and interacts with them instead. This worked really well, and (as I've confirmed by a quick glance at my copy of the story since I got home) meant that they could use masses of the original text verbatim. Of course, it did mean that the young woman playing Laura in particular had a lot of lines of crisp, eloquent mid-19th century prose to learn, and indeed almost every member of the cast had at least some quite long speeches to get through without the benefit of the prompts and cues that come with rapid-fire back-and-forth dialogue. So there were inevitably one or two muddles or hesitations - but remarkably few of them considering how much they had to say and that (as far as I know) it was their first performance. Overall, I thought they all spoke beautifully, really doing justice to Le Fanu's prose. The actual performances were impressive, too. Possibly slightly over-egged in a few cases - but that might just be because I'm more used to watching film and TV, where people can be more subtle, multiplied by the fact that we were sitting in the second row, so quite close up to the action. There may also be a case for saying that Carmilla herself was a little too fluttery and bubbly, given that she is also described in the dialogue as 'languid', but then again in and of itself it worked - it was just the slight contradiction with the dialogue which made it seem slightly off-tone for me.

As for the story itself, I don't think I've read it since I was a teenager, and of course it's been creeping steadily up my mental 'to-read' list over the past few months given the other things I've been reading and thinking about. So it was very welcome to have the opportunity to revisit it through this production. And isn't it great? It's certainly thrilling to think that pure Victorian ideals of female friendship allowed Le Fanu to get away with writing something that strikes modern audiences as so rampantly lesbitious. At least, I feel the need to read up on exactly how that worked and how it would have been received by contemporary readers. My current reading of David Skal's biography of Bram Stoker has primed me enough on the Irish cholera epidemics of the 1830s and '40s to see the resonances those must have given to the casting of Carmilla's nocturnal activities as a 'plague'; while of course it's obvious and widely recognised how much Stoker's own vampire novel owes to Le Fanu's. I can also see now how much Robert Aickman's 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal' (LJ / DW) is drawing on this: particularly in its use of a young female first-person narrator and its device of vampires targeting their victims at balls. His vampire-character is male rather than female, but as I noted in my review, his female narrator does also seem distinctly interested in the contessa's daughter after she (believes she) has begun her transformation into a vampire, so Aickman manages to have it both ways - an opposite-sex main attraction, but also a same-sex sub-plot.

I think I will still revisit the story proper before long, not least to test out whether or not it uses Classical references at all in the same manner as Stoker's Dracula. It won't harm the paper I'm planning on that topic if it doesn't, as John Polidori's 'The Vampyre' and Edgar Allan Poe both certainly do, and we know that both were read by and influenced Stoker. So I've got a strong enough case to say that his Classical allusions are part of the tradition he is positioning himself within already - but another one or two tucked away within Carmilla certainly wouldn't hurt. I can only say for now that there definitely weren't any in this evening's performance - but who knows what there might be in the parts of the text they didn't use.


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