Review: Dracula: Mina's Reckoning at Liverpool Playhouse ****
Whitby may be the epicentre of all things Gothic, thanks to Bram Stoker who chose it as the setting for his most famous novel.
But it seems Cruden Bay on the northeastern tip of Scotland may have been an even stronger influence on the Irish author (and theatre business manager) when he came to pen his tale of dark deeds, Dracula.
And the wild, bleak, dreek Scottish landscape around Aberdeen becomes the backdrop for this bold feminist theatrical reimagining from writer Morna Pearson, who also refocuses Stoker’s classic to drag its female characters from passive victims to proactive, complex centres of the story.
While the time period remains constant, dropping us in 1897, Pearson relocates the core of the narrative to an Aberdeen asylum for women where Mina Murray (Danielle Jam) clutches a satchel full of journals and letters and proceeds to unfold her fantastical story to the spellbound inmates.
Words spin into actions as the studious, inquiring and resourceful Mina and her best friend Lucy (Ailsa Davidson) enjoy carefree days on the cliffs – a blessed escape from Lucy’s pompous fiancé (here Dr Seward rather than the Arthur Holmwood of the book) lecturing them on women’s weaknesses.
Misogyny is in for a good ridicule at the hands of Pearson, with Seward (Maggie Bain) pronouncing “you can either grow a brain or grow a baby” (or “books shrink your ovaries” as Lucy wryly mimics). Both pronouncements draw laughs - and gasps - from the audience, although not for the same reasons.
Seward may want to keep the little women safe and firmly in their place, but while he, Mina’s naïve admirer Jonathan Harker (Catriona Faint) and the illustrious, preposterous Van Helsing (a wily performance from Natalie Arle-Toyne) go hunting for the count who has sailed into the bay to unleash vampiric chaos, Mina cracks on with dealing with the situation in her own way - and gaining her own agency in the process.
Above: Danielle Jam as Mina Murray. Top: Count Dracula (LIz Kettle). Photos by Mihaela Bodlovic.
As for the Transylvanian terror himself? Liz Kettle, returning to the Playhouse stage after appearing as Queen Margaret in Richard III earlier this year, delivers a mesmerising performance as Dracula, shimmering with irresistible sinister intent as she materialises silently from the deep shadows cast by Aideen Malone’s intense lighting design.
While at times you need to concentrate hard to decipher dialogue delivered in some of the broader Scottish dialects, there’s absolute clarity in the interactions between Jam and Kettle (incidentally a great name for a double act!).
Director Sally Cookson creates a suitably simmering, disquieting atmosphere in this strange world with the action playing out on Kenneth Macleod’s framework set, an adventure playground of stairs, ladders, ramps and railings.
It stands in relief against a backdrop on which Lewis den Hertog’s video design saturates the scene in blood red, or creates an eerie darkness or even eerier half-light.
Whether you have a Gothic heart or not, with Halloween on the horizon Mina’s Reckoning is certainly a well-timed, supernatural stage experience.