Jonathan Harker and Dracula
Gerard McCarthy plays a plethora of characters in Ulster Theatre Company's game adaptation
You could say Dracula was born out of the theatre. Bram Stoker worked as the great actor Henry Irving's business manager and Stoker's finest, yet most foul Gothic creation, reflects this background.
From the moment Count Dracula welcomes young English solicitor Jonathan Harker into his rather unusual castle, the twists and turns of this quintessential 19th century scary tale are more than dramatic – it isn't just good versus evil, it's a melodramatic battle between the voice of reason and the roar of the undead.
So Gerard McCarthy's project with the Ulster Theatre Company – to bring the story of the vampire and his pursuer to the stage as a one man show – is inspired and ambitious. But is centring on one actor, even an actor as versatile as McCarthy, asking a lot?
Initially the stage of the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, where Jonathan Harker and Dracula premieres, is full of incident as McCarthy – a former cast member of teen TV soap Hollyoaks – switches from demure Victorian functionary to stylized vampire.
In fact, the first section of the performance, which follows the epistolary form of the original novel, acts as a kind of self-contained play in itself, following the relationship between Harker and Dracula as it changes from fascination to terror and revulsion.
Three screens downstage provide images that convey a sense of of the cavernous vastness of Dracula's castle, and if the trio of female vampires projected from beyond – played con brio by Kym Marsh, Rachel Tucker and Jayne Wisener – have a certain Pan's people quality, it should be remembered that they are like that in the book as well.
When the action moves beyond the castle, there is an immediate loss of energy. Those unfamiliar with the novel must be confused by the sudden profusion of characters, which McCarthy unfortunately sometimes struggles to differentiate between. It is really a question of, if it's a Scottish accent, it must be Dr Seward, and so on.
It could be argued that here the adaptation is too faithful to the novel. Many of the most successful screen versions from the Universal era, or early Hammer Horror efforts, made a habit of fusing or abandoning certain characters altogether.
Adapter and director Michael Poynor does leave out a lot of the parallel tale of Lucy, but perhaps might have focussed more on Harker. The struggle for voices to make themselves heard here means that the importance of, say, the lunatic Renfield, is somewhat lost in the mix, although the scene where he gulps a bluebottle is terrific.
Nevertheless, McCarthy's performance always manages to hold our attention, to the extent than when at the beginning of the second act the screens go a worrying blue colour – with gremlins presumably in the system – he still commands the stage.
Somehow, the Belfast-born actor regains control of the myriad cast and while Poynor allows the book's rip roaring climax to carry the pace, with the screens once more becoming an asset to the narrative rather than a distraction. McCarthy even permits himself one or two moments of welcome humour in some of the minor charcterisations, with a Cockney locksmith here, a Billy Connollyish ship's captain there.
Vampires have been tamed in the public imagination to the extent where it would be difficult to imagine even a skilled adaptation of Dracula producing nightmares, though the image of the titular bloodsucker presenting a baby to the three female vampires is disturbing enough to produce at least one walkout, and the notion of beheading even a monster has here taken on a queasy modern resonance.
All the while, McCarthy does his best, but his Dracula ultimately fails to terrify – he is most at home with the character of Jonathan Harker. Traditionaly labelled as one of literature's shrinking violets, McCarthy invests the character with humanity and no little heroism.
This production ends with the creature that Stoker describes as having an ice-cold handshake and a mouth that is 'fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth' finally despatched.
It makes you speculate on the nature of fictional evil and what is really scary, raising comparisons with Emily Bronte's Heathcliff and even bits of Arthur Conan Doyle (a distant relative of Stoker's), but the real horror of the projected image of the Count at play's end remains in the mind.
Jonathan Harker and Dracula runs at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey until September 27.