Reborn in East Anglia : the return of the great vampire

David Benson as Dracula in The Fitzrovia Radio Hour's Dracula at the Colchester Mercury

David Benson as Dracula in The Fitzrovia Radio Hour's Dracula at the Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

Dracula is one of the great literary creations of the 20th century but, although he was born in the pages of Bram Stoker’s novel, the vampire Lord of the Undead also has long associations with the stage.

David Benson as Dracula and Joanna Wake in The Fitzrovia Radio Hour's Dracula at the Colchester Mer

David Benson as Dracula and Joanna Wake in The Fitzrovia Radio Hour's Dracula at the Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

Count Dracula may have been inspired by the Transylvanian ruler Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler due to his blood-thirsty habit of skewering his enemies on large spikes. However, his personality was actually modelled after a 19th century actor: Sir Henry Irving.

Bram Stoker was Irving’s business manager and ran the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End. Irving, who had a reputation for being a beguiling host with hypnotic eyes, was famed for his gentlemanly manners and love of playing charming villains.

It’s widely believed that Stoker took Irving’s winning characteristics and bestowed them on his new fictional creation. The result was an anti-hero for the ages.

Despite Count Dracula being a creation of the Victorian and Edwardian era, his allure remains as timeless as ever. He is constantly reinvented for each new era and each generation offers up a willing new audience for the count to feast upon. But, the essential elements of Stoker’s creation remain. He is a charming, elegant, handsome man who is compelled to satisfy dark desires but is ultimately longing for the one thing he can never have, death.

Fiona Sheehan, Joanna Wake and David Benson in The Fitzrovia Radio Hour's Dracula at the Colchester

Fiona Sheehan, Joanna Wake and David Benson in The Fitzrovia Radio Hour's Dracula at the Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant


You may also want to watch:


This month East Anglian audiences are being treated to two wildly different interpretations of Stoker’s classic tale.

Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, in conjunction with the Fitzrovia Radio Hour, are staging a production of Dracula which has the cast discovering that perhaps one of their number isn’t quite like the others.

Most Read

It’s a mad-cap comedy which still manages to provide some chills and blood-curdling surprises in among the laughs.

At the other extreme DanceEast are staging a wildly dark and atmospheric interpretation by the Mark Bruce dance company. It’s a performance which will explore the characters and motivations of the people who inhabit Stoker’s twilight world.

David Benson as Dracula and Fiona Sheehan in The Fitzrovia Radio Hour's Dracula at the Colchester Me

David Benson as Dracula and Fiona Sheehan in The Fitzrovia Radio Hour's Dracula at the Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

Is Dracula a charming guest or a feral hunter sizing up his prey? And what of his young female victims? Do some go willingly into his arms?

It’s a mesmerising piece and between them they highlight the richness and the adaptability of the original source material and the variety of ways the same story can be told.

Actor Dan Starkey is busily brushing up his Dutch accent when we speak. “Is it Dutch, I’m not sure?” he queries, “It’s sort of European in a not German or French kind of way.”

Dan is playing vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing in The Fitzrovia Radio Hour’s production of Dracula at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester.

Jonathan Goddard as Dracula in Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company at DanceEast

Jonathan Goddard as Dracula in Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company at DanceEast - Credit: Archant

“It’s Dracula but done as a comedy – and it’s done as a radio play but on stage, in a theatre,” he explains. “So it’s got laughs along with the death and the killing and the blood!”

Dan is a regular collaborator with The Fitzrovia Radio Hour, a group of actor friends who got together to exploit the dramatic possibilities of a 1930s radio broadcast done on stage.

“People think that nothing happens on radio, that you stand still in front of a microphone and just read your lines. Nothing could be further from the truth. As all those who come along will discover, it’s pandemonium up there. We’re all dashing about making sound effects, trying not to bump into one another, acting our hearts out and hoping we remember who we are at any given time as most of us play a number of different roles.”

He said that one of the joys of doing this latest production at The Mercury is that their radio production has suddenly not only gone into colour: it’s gone widescreen.

Jonathan Goddard as Dracula and Eleanor Duval as Mina Harker in Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company at

Jonathan Goddard as Dracula and Eleanor Duval as Mina Harker in Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company at DanceEast - Credit: Archant

“It’s glorious. We have a properly designed set that really makes us look as if we are in a radio studio.”

Dan is best known for playing Strax and most of the Sontaran race in the revived series of Doctor Who but is relishing the opportunity to tap into his inner vampire hunter to give what he hopes will be a remarkable performance as Van Helsing.

“Van Helsing and Dracula are two of literature’s great adversaries aren’t they? Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. They are two sides of the same coin. Both clever and resourceful, trying to outwit one another.”

He said that their production is a play within a play. “It’s essentially a radio production of Dracula done by a company in 1937. We have the usual members of the radio drama company who know each other quite well but for this production they have a guest artiste and they think it’s quite a coup to have landed a Romanian character actor to play the part of Dracula.

Jonathan Goddard as Dracula and Eleanor Duval as Mina Harker in Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company at

Jonathan Goddard as Dracula and Eleanor Duval as Mina Harker in Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company at DanceEast - Credit: Archant

“But they find over the course of the performance that not only is he a little bit eccentric but that he is more suited to the role than they might have expected...”

One of the joys of Fitzrovia is that the actors also tend to be the writers and their distinctive performances are the product of countless hours of creative collaboration in a rehearsal room trying to improve the script and add layers of humour and sub-text to the story.

“We’re always trying to improve things, top a gag, put a new twist on a scene. Someone is always saying: ‘Why don’t we try this, or perhaps I could do this?’

“We’ll always give it a go. If it works, it’ll go in the show if not then fine we all move onto something else.”

Like all madcap comedy, it may look improvised but it is invariably the result of much preparation. “Nothing this spontaneous happens without an awful lot of rehearsal,” he laughs. “It is the result of collaboration and moments of inspired lunacy but that all happens in the rehearsal room and during the development process. For example, how do you create the sound of someone being pulled inside out?”

He said that the company originally came together in a basement bar in the Fitzrovia area of London. “We first started with some American radio scripts which we Anglicised and then we started writing our own material. Those pulpy storylines are immense fun to perform. Over the years we have established our own aesthetic which owes a lot not only to The Goons but also to The League of Gentlemen. So you have not only the story that they are performing but audiences get to see the story unfolding between the performers as the broadcast goes on air.”

n The Fitzrovia Radio Hour’s Dracula is at The Mercury Theatre until November 16.

For choreographer Mark Bruce dance isn’t just dance – or abstract dance – dance is theatre. Dance is storytelling and his production of Dracula is a way to put some drama into the DanceHouse on Ipswich Waterfront.

Mark said that the subject of Dracula had haunted him since childhood. He discovered the story when young and it has retained a fascination with him to this day. “It’s always lurking at the back of my mind. It wasn’t as if I wanted to do a dance-theatre version of the story, it’s just how it ended up.”

The book is full of visual elements and lends itself to a medium like dance-theatre. “It has a powerful heart to the story. As I started to edit the skeleton of the story together, I realised that it made perfect sense to tell it in this way.”

He said that although there was no dialogue in the performance, there is an original song which is performed during the show. The rest of the story is told through dance and visuals.

“It’s all music, pictures and dance. Some people say that dance-theatre is in at the moment but I don’t know. All dance styles tend to come and go all the time. It’s very hard to say what’s in. I just do what I do. I think what happens is that we often come back to dance-theatre because it is a very good medium to work in and yet it is frequently under-rated.

“I think a lot of my work, a lot of the things I do, are very influenced by stuff that was happening in the 1970s. What has changed now is more technical. There’s lots of different media used, particularly projections and audio/visual work in dance.

“People experiment with combining all sorts of art-forms and sometimes that’s great and at other times, perhaps you can end up in a situation when you have got too many ingredients to choose from.

“I think the temptation is that you can develop an idea in too many different ways and it becomes confused and unfocused as a result. I think you have to have a clear idea about what you want to say, the story you want to tell and just stick with it.

“I think it’s very seductive to have all these different tools at your disposal but sometimes you lose sight of the substance of a piece and you somewhat unwittingly replace it with spectacle which is not the same thing.”

Although he generally deals in narrative dance, Dracula is probably one of the most straightforward pieces he has produced in recent years, he said.

“There is always some form of story in my work but it’s not always linear. I deal with characters and characters always come with stories.”

He said that character was the way to hook an audience into the tale and in this production of Dracula he wants to explore the personalities and the drives of all the characters. “I am trying to tell the story from everyone’s perspective.

“I think that Dracula represents a darker side of all the other characters. One of the things which I found coming out of the piece as I made it was empathy for the vampire brides and their situation.

“I think their story is something that is relevant to today and hasn’t really been explored.”

However, he did say that the actual performance is set in the era in which it was written.

“I think you have to for it to make sense and to keep the atmosphere.

“I think if you didn’t then you would lose the feel for the taboos and the interests of the era which are so much a part of the book.”

What Mark has done in his adaptation is to streamline the story and make sure that he is only dealing with the essential plot and this, surprisingly, means jettisoning Van Helsing, the vampire hunter.

“I wanted to focus very much on the vampires themselves and try and discover what made them tick.

“I developed the piece with Jonathan Goddard, who is playing Dracula, and we’ve made him quite a complex character. Some bits he got straight away and other aspects took a little bit more work.

“We also explored his condition and how it affected him, so in that way I had a very clear idea about what I wanted.

“It’s very much about the loneliness and the madness of having to live so long and to exist in the way that he does. Both he and the vampire brides lead a very wretched existence. They have lost their soul and he is trying to feel again.”

He said that he wanted to tackle the complexities about Dracula.

“I didn’t want to romanticise the story. Dracula’s a hunter.

“He’s a very brutal character and I didn’t want to have a love affair between him and Mina. There’s a connection between them but it’s quite different to love.”

n Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company is at DanceEast on November 22.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter
Comments powered by Disqus