Encouraged by the success of the company’s recent audio version of Frankenstein, this is an immersive new telling of the classic story of the undead aristocrat’s desire to escape the backward isolation of rural Transylvanian and relocate to the beating heart of the British Empire, where the pickings promise to be more succulent and plentiful. Horror aficionado Mark Gatiss takes on the titular role with great enthusiasm. In a performance that is expertly judged, he adopts a measured (yet suitably mysterious) ‘ancient aristocratic’ accent that impresses precisely because of its restrained malevolence.
As Gatiss himself acknowledges in his behind-the-scenes interview, the icons of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee loom large over any actor taking on the role. In contrast to these big screen persona, Gatiss takes full advantage of the intimacy of the audio format to deliver a reading of the Count that is all the more chilling for its quiet, compelling menace; and which makes his unexpected explosive outbursts that much more powerful. Cinematic representations of Dracula inevitably focus the lens on the blood-sucking monster. Yet in Stoker’s novel, the vampire is (particularly after the story relocates to London) not the book’s central figure, and only appears at pivotal moments. Instead, the book’s leading protagonists are the vampire hunters who band together to thwart and deal with The Count.
The performances of that entire ensemble are uniformly strong, and the sound design makes good use of the drama’s signature locations (a castle, a ship at sea, a graveyard, the catacombs of a church, an asylum) to reinforce the gothic ambiance of the piece. There’s no arguing with the fact that Stoker’s book is a literary classic, but it’s not a novel with a structure or a language that seamlessly translates to the audio realm. Jonathan Barnes rises to the challenge of adapting Stoker’s long and occasionally florid prose into a manageable audio script with a clear sense of focus. This is a reading which foregrounds the character of Nina Harker (a great performance from Deirdre Mullins) as one of the key characters driving the hunt for The Count; she becomes a much more pro-active co-conspirator than seen in most versions of the story. This is also reading of the text which presents Van Helsing (a spirited turn from Nigel Betts) as an irascible and undiplomatic member of the anti-vampire team rather than its charismatic leader.
Director Scott Handcock maintains the energy and atmosphere across the three different sections of the story: young lawyer Jonathan Harker’s trip to the Count’s Transylvanian lair; Dracula’s arrival in England and its deadly consequences; and the hunters pursuit of their quarry back across the continent. Using different narrative techniques (a narrator voice; diary extracts; phonographic recordings; letters), Handcock builds a strong texture to the storytelling. The opening section is the most intensely character-driven and is effectively a two-hander between a wide-eyed and increasingly anxious Harker (Joseph Kloska on convincing form) and his undead employer. Handcock does not neglect the underlying themes of blood, sex, desire, death and power, and does include some gruesome scenes (the Count’s lascivious feasting on Nina is the most intense) but this is not a telling of Dracula dripping with gore. Rather this is a tale rich in atmosphere and possessed of a creeping sense of unease and dread, which then bursts into bloodletting and violence at decisive moments.
This release includes the bonus of a set of behind the scenes interviews with cast members and writer Barnes; in-studio outtakes; and selected music-only tracks from composer James Dunlop’s evocative soundtrack. This is a rich, impressive and confident production which should, for maximum chills and thrills, be devoured in a single sitting.DRACULA / AUTHOR: BRAM STOKER (DRAMATISED BY JONATHAN BARNES) / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / STARRING: MARK GATISS, JOSEPH KLOSKA, DEIRDRE MULLINS, NIGEL BETTS, RUPERT YOUNG, ALEX JORDAN, DAVID MENKIN, ROSANNA MILES, ELIZABETH MORTON, IAN HALLARD, EDWARD PETHERBRIDGE, KATY MANNING / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW