Helming shake & stir theatre co’s production of Dracula as a co-writer and lead actor, Nick Skubij has a unique insight into how to bring this classic text back to life.
While contemporary vampire stories have ridden a recent wave of popularity, the tale that started a fictional phenomenon, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, has become less prominent. But the intrepid Brisbane-based shake & stir theatre co has brought the Count back from the brink with their direct adaptation of the 19th century novel.
Nick Skubij, who co-wrote the adaptation and stars as Dracula, says the play takes the original vampire story back to its dark and devilish roots. Working with Nelle Lee on the adaptation, Skubij steered clear of contemporary “schlocky” versions of the story to keep things strictly focussed on the essential horror of the book.
“I think with a lot of the films there’s a bit of a schlocky perspective taken and over time the Dracula story has been treated quite humourously or comically,” he says. “There’s a certain class of vaudevillian schlock to it… We asked ourselves what made this story so shocking or revolutionary or interesting and exciting for readers when they were first presented with it.”
Shocking a contemporary audience isn’t a simple task, though. With a barrage of fictional and real horrors flying through our screens daily, Skubij and Lee had to consider how to respect the original story and keep things fresh for audiences. Luckily the text comes laden with all sorts of theatrical elements and tricks to be exploited.
“We liked the idea that the story was so theatrical that it lends itself to a retelling onstage — the environment and the world of the novel is such a tangible thing when you read the story,” says Skubij. “We loved the sumptuousness of the era and the challenge it lent to doing the tricks in the book, like a moment when Dracula’s scaling down a wall and there’s lots of flames and old-school effects that come from the novel that we have literally translated to the stage.”
While this stage adaptation story is deeply rooted in Stoker’s novel, Lee and Skubij knew that they would have to contend with modern representations of vampires, thanks to those recent stories on film and television.
“We’ve got a really good mix of audience in this show,” Skubij says. “There’s people who love the novel, but also people who love vampires because of things like True Blood and the more contemporary vampire tales. You’ve got to appease those audiences, I think — those who have this new version of what a vampire should be and those that are coming to it for the original.”
So where does that generation-bridging love for the vampire myth come from? Skubij believes the appeal comes from the essential nature of the beast. These free, immortal, reckless beings embody our own deep animalistic desires, and their sensuality is something inherent to the human condition.
“I think there’s an allure to the myth of the danger inherent in the vampire genre,” he explains. “There’s a certain human nature that has us desire things that are bad for us, or have us crave things that we shouldn’t or be interested in… There’s the immortality too. People like the idea of being all-powerful and immortal… Count Dracula starts as this very old individual, but then you’ve got, say in Twilight, very young, youthful, energetic characters. There’s some sex appeal that’s crept into it at some point too, which comes from that metaphor of taking in the blood and essence of a human being’s soul and the fluids of your body. There’s a sexuality to that.”
One sticking point between vampiric audiences old and new, though, is the rules of the game. With each iteration of bloodsucking stories, those vampires possess different vulnerabilities. We know that bundles of garlic, a crucifix, mirrors, daylight or a stake to the heart might take a vampire down, but settling those rules takes consideration.
“We actually had a couple of actors who were big fans of the more contemporary versions of vampires, so there was a lot of debating about exactly those rules,” he says. “You’ve got to be accurate and know what it is you’re talking about, I guess.
“It was really interesting to discover myself that once you open up that can of worms and start discussing it just how complicated and intricate it is. For certain audiences and people who are fans of the genre, you can see why. There’s such a world in there with all these rules that a lot of people know surprisingly detailed information about.”
September 7 until September 16
Photography: Dylan Evans