A Vampire Story

Playwright Moira Buffini on writing big stories for little people

Moira Buffini is the founder of the Monsterists, an ambitious theatre group that put on plays of monstrous proportions, with huge (by modern standards) casts of 18 to 24 actors. 'No one could afford to commission a play with more than six people in it,' Buffini recalls. 'They'd say "No, no, if you write any more characters, we can’t afford to pay the actors and no-one will put on the play."' So the Monsterists decided to just ‘put it out there'. It paid off.

Buffini is the fourth Monsterist to get one of her plays staged at the Olivier Theatre, the 1000 seater main house of the National Theatre in London. 'People realised that unless they let people into those big spaces then the skill of writing for them will die,' Buffini explains, 'and writers will go elsewhere, into telly or film to write their big stories.'

Luckily, that didn't happen with Buffini. One of her 'big stories', A Vampire Story, opens at the Elmwood Hall (the Lyric Theatre's temporary home) on January 14. Buffini claims that it's 'exactly what it says on the tin: it's a vampire story.' Except it's not quite that simple, because whose story is it? Buffini's, the unnamed older sister's or 16-year old Eleanor on whose gothic memories (or stories?) the play hangs.

The older sister says that their mother died three years ago and that she has become her 16-year old sister's guardian. They travel around. The elder sister takes low paying jobs and Eleanor goes to school; that's her story. Eleanor, on the other hand, says that they aren't sisters at all, that they are mother and daughter and 200-years old; that's her story. Buffini isn't going to spill the beans on which is the truth, 'It depends on which girl you believe.'

She does add, however, that A Vampire Story is as much about our fascination with vampires as it is about vampires themselves. In a century vampires have changed from the deformed Nosferatu, grotesque, undead things with needle teeth and gravedirt under their long fingernails, into the vegetarian, eternally youthful undead of Vampire Diaries and Twilight. They are a monster that changes with the times, mutating to become what we want them to be.

A Vampire StoryBuffini plays with that idea in Vampire Story, rendering the reality portrayed on stage as mutable as the vampire myth itself. 'The central characters are played by different actresses in the present and past,' she explains enthusiastically. 'Fantasy and reality, past and present going on at the same time, seeping into each other.'

It's not the first time that Buffini (born in England to Irish parents) has explored ideas of fantasy and reality in her work. Her play Dinner is about a dinner party that spirals into the surreal and grotesque, with a course of frozen waste and the death of a guest. She also adapted the children's novel Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr for the stage, where the eponymous Marianne spends her fever dreams in a drawing of a house, only to realise that she's not the only inhabitant.

Buffini recalls a time when there were three distinct worlds in plays: the personal, the political and the spiritual, a concept that only disappeared when plays started to shrink down into lounges and drawing rooms.

That third world needs the scale of the epic play that the Monsterists are eager to see back in theatres, although Buffini points out that once you have the cast for A Vampire Story it's a very simple play to stage. It is, after all, a play written for young people, and Buffini wants them to be able to stage it with absolutely minimal resources. 'All you need is a potato peeler,' the playwright smirks. 'A potato peeler and a litre of blood.'

Tammy Moore

Produced by the Lyric Drama Studio, A Vampire Story plays at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, January 14-15. Full details and booking information can be found in the Culture Live! listings.