Sherman Cymru, Cardiff
“Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly…” Dedicated to the memory of Christopher Lee, Liz Lochhead’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula is the culmination of nine months of hard work and commitment from The Sherman Players; a newly established drama group open to anyone over the age of eighteen, with no prior acting experience necessary.
Considering this policy, the overall standard of acting is very high. Luther Phillips and Nicky Howard-Kemp are both exceptional in their portrayal of the dangerous mental patient Renfield, (although we eventually become somewhat desensitised as this adaption sees the majority of the cast descend into madness throughout the performance). Whilst some of the acting has an occasional tendency toward the hammy, overall these glimpses into the effects of mental health are artfully handled by every actor. Both Saskia Pay and Meg Lewis manage to handle Lucy Westenra’s fairly sudden decline from shallow, childish temptress to possessed, delirious victim with maturity and finesse. Finbar Varrall too comes alive once ensnared by the count; his tortured screams and fits within his nightmares is the turning point for a much stronger performance as the naïve Jonathan Harker.
Surrounding the stage from above, the audience watch events unfold in the eerily lit pit below. Ace McCarron and Hristo Takov’s superb lighting design creates a suitably Gothic atmosphere; dangling mirrors cast elusive doorways across the stage, adding to the sensation of being trapped within the nightmare of the characters below. Dracula’s debut is particularly beautiful as she emerges from a part of the stage seemingly inaccessible until this point. The wall of the stage opens outwards, lit from within and Dracula materializes from the darkness. Silhouetted against the billowing smoke in her long black cloak, Alys Wilcox cuts a dramatic figure. This bold decision to cast a female Dracula is unfortunately not carried through with full conviction though as, despite being costumed in feminine dresses, it is apparent from Wilcox’s speeches that she is supposed to be portraying a man. The confusion in gender portrayal does nothing but highlight the missed potential for adding a slightly more seductive edge or feminine charisma to Dracula’s character. Nevertheless, Wilcox provides a strong performance with her artfully delivered speeches and commanding presence.
This is just one of many interesting choices made by Liz Lochhead and Director, Phillip Mackenzie, and not all of them are successful. Many of the main characters have been dual-cast, a decision which causes some initial confusion and fails to develop into anything of significance. The actors are so different in technique and manner that it is only the duplicated outfits and use of names which reveal them as the same character. The scenes are not split between the actors in order to showcase two different sides of one personality, making this appear a casting decision of necessity rather than creativity.
Another unusual aspect of the production is that the entire cast remain on the stage throughout the duration. Whilst their constant shifts between prowling the edges of the pit and writhing on the floor, often interspersed with jerking shudders and frantic breathing, sometimes prove a distraction from the action unfolding, the overall effect is a sense of disorientation and unease which works well within the piece. With its modernist, electronic beats, John Rea’s musical soundtrack is the perfect partner to this sense of growing dread and mounting chaos.
Although some creative decisions fell a little short of the mark, with a chilling and ambitiously experimental inaugural production, Sherman Players have proven they are not afraid to take the necessary risks to produce exciting, progressive theatre. They are certainly ones to watch.