Gothic Horror Theatre: It’s Alive! (Or Is It?)
When I hear of a stage play adapted from a Gothic horror story, like London’s National Theatre sell-out production of Frankenstein, there’s a vein of jealousy running through my excitement. For I began my writing career as a playwright, and I worked hard on several scripts of famous horror tales that never made it to the theatres. Yes, for reasons unfathomable to me, my Phantom of the Opera, written when I was nine, was eclipsed by some inferior version produced around the same time by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I hear it’s still doing quite well in the West End, but what do punters know?
My version was inspired not by Gaston Leroux’s novel, which I hadn’t yet read, but chiefly by the Universal film starring Claude Rains. Despite some beautifully expressionistic art direction and a tightly crafted chandelier sequence, this 1943 version smothers most of the terror with whimsical vignettes and protracted musical sequences. The few horror moments, such as the final unmasking – to reveal a relatively unimpressive Jack Pierce makeup – inspired me to pen a 10-minute adaptation, which my peers and I performed before a packed assembly hall. The other pupils loved it so much, I wrote a more action-packed sequel with gunfights, tied-up heroines and dramatic poisonings.
I later tried my hand at other horror classics, including Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula and Frankenstein. I was particularly proud of Frankenstein because, like the mad scientist himself, I worked on it day and night in the confines of my writing laboratory. It was the only full-length play I ever finished, although I’m sure it was awful – I was still a mere 10 or 11 – and sadly, the manuscript has disappeared. I still have a box containing other plays, and even a few crumpled pages of Phantom still exist. (eBay?)
So the idea of horror theatre has a special resonance with me. Danny Boyle, best known for films such as Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, directs the new Frankenstein, which opened in February to almost unanimous acclaim. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate the role of Frankenstein and the Creature. (The only other instance I recall of the dualism being quite so vividly portrayed is in the 1968 TV play for the ITV series Mystery and Imagination, in which Ian Holm played both parts.)
The BBC followed with a contemporary, semi-comical adaptation of its own, Frankenstein’s Wedding, a multimedia staging before an audience of thousands in the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, in Leeds, and broadcast live on BBC3. As the title suggests, the action centred around the night of Frankenstein’s wedding to Elizabeth. There were pre-filmed flashbacks on large screens, musical numbers by live bands and even flash-mob style dance routines that involved the entire crowd. The reviewers’ consensus, however, seemed to be that the much-hyped event was a flop, albeit a fascinating experiment that deserved praise for its daring.
Over in America, the new off-Broadway production of Dracula has received a critical bashing. The show is a revival of the Hamilton Deane-John L Balderston play that enjoyed huge success on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s. In 1931, it was filmed by Universal with the star of the Broadway production, Bela Lugosi (Raymond Huntley had played him in the earlier London version), and then in 1979 with Frank Langella, also reprising a role he had played on Broadway. This new version stars Italian model Michel Altieri in the title role, with support from George Hearn – musical theatre’s definitive Sweeney Todd – as Van Helsing, and Emily Bridges, daughter of actor Beau, who took over from Thora Birch after her much-publicized firing a few days before the previews.
It turns out Birch may have had a lucky escape from a doomed production. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times doesn’t hold back in his assessment:
Sadly, this comically creaky production … makes the material feel about as immortal as a fruit fly. The creature this lumbering staging most resembles is not one of those comely young vampires with six-pack abs zigzagging at warp speed across screens today, but a lumbering, dead-eyed zombie fresh from the crypt. … [The] play comes across as a hopelessly hoary Victorian melodrama long on talky scenes rehearsing the by-now-familiar lore … and scarcely enlivened by cheesy would-be thrills that are not likely to raise a single goose pimple[.]
Who needs Van Helsing when you have critics like Isherwood?
Two misses out of three so far when it comes to this mini-revival in horror theatre. While the National Theatre’s Frankenstein may be an exception, the greatest stage adaptations of the classic Gothic tales probably have yet to be written. Balderston and Deane don’t hold up in this more sophisticated age. I’ve never read the play The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, made famous on the Victorian stage by Jack-the-Ripper suspect Richard Mansfield, but I suspect the same could be said of it.
I’d write the definitive Dracula myself, but Andrew Lloyd Webber would only steal the limelight again by writing his own musical version. I suppose with me it’s just a case of “Once bitten, twice shy.”