Renfield: In the Shadow of the Vampire

Renfield: In the Shadow of the Vampire
By Ross Ericson. Grist to the Mill Productions (UK). Adelaide Fringe. Bakehouse Theatre. 4-14 March, 2020

In this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival there are a number of adaptations of ‘classic’ literary novels, exemplified by Grist to Mill’s productions of Moby Dick,and Renfield: In the Shadow of the Vampire, the latter based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. For some reason it is these two novels in particular that are playing a role in the festival. Why? I have no idea, except that like a number of other productions in this year’s Fringe and Adelaide Festival they deal with the universal themes of ‘broken dreams’, ‘transformations’, and ‘survival’. In many ways they follow the ‘classic’ definition of a ‘romance’ that is essentially about going on a journey.

Ross Ericson’s excellent one-man version of Moby Dick has already been, deservedly, highly praised and is also part of Grist to the Mill’s season at the Bakehouse Theatre. Renfield: In the Shadow of the Vampire is a new work, and as the engaging Mister Ericson says, ‘it is still in development’ and they are seeking constructive criticism.

Renfield, in Dracula, is the tragic madman in the insane asylum whom Dracula has initially used in his desires to come to England. Dracula has promised Renfield that for good and dutiful service he will fulfill Renfield’s dream and transform him into a vampire, gaining ‘eternal life’. However, Dracula plays on Renfield’s desires and manipulates and controls him completely. Renfield winds up in a lunatic asylum, devouring insects and babbling on about ‘the master’. He becomes jealous of Dracula’s seeming abandonment of him, replacing him to a certain extent with Jonathan Harker. Renfield’s resentment leads him to betray Dracula, and because, like Dracula, he has strong feelings for Mina Harker. These feelings for Mina Harker will eventually destroy both Renfield and Dracula. Renfield informs on Dracula and his plans and subsequently Dracula kills him.

That in a nutshell is the basic plot-line for Renfield’s journey and function in Dracula. Ross Ericson’s stage adaptation honours most of this. Ross Ericson first appears as a macabre MC that introduces us to the story. This sardonic MC returns at certain moments in the dramatic narrative to comment on the action, as well as allowing for the play to express some of Bram Stoker’s philosophical (and theatrical) reflections. Mister Ericson then plays Renfield in the insane asylum in a number of scenes that are framed by Renfield formally addressing the asylum authorities and major heroes in the story in order to be released from the insane asylum. In other short scenes, more like flash-backs, we get the journey of Renfield in his cell, completely insane and babbling away, as well as starting to eat flies, then spiders, and then desirous of bigger animals. There is a logic here, as he is being manipulated by Dracula from outside the insane asylum but it is all a bit overwhelming.

Mister Ericson gives an absolutely terrific performance, as Renfield and as the sardonic MC. He has a commanding presence and excellent voice that he uses with great skill and effect. It is an engaging 60 minutes and those familiar with the novel will enjoy this particular perspective. Renfield is a fascinating and memorable tragic character.

I would, however, encourage Mister Ericson and his colleagues to do some judicious editing. It is true that in the novel Renfield does rant and rave, often being Stoker’s voice for philosophical points about madness, ambition, desire, and sensual bestiality. These rants and raves are fragmented, and whilst honouring the novel, as a piece of the dramatic narrative they become difficult to follow and tedious. More of the drama that is happening between Renfield and the outside world is needed, with Dracula, Mina, and the others, otherwise it starts to become a self-indulgent and repetitive rant.

I think the dramatic device of Renfield presenting his argument in a formal address is excellent. I suggest Renfield stay there and not do the flashbacks in his cell but as part of his formal argument in front of the other characters. It is the scenes in Renfield’s cell that are problematic, confusing and repetitive, and (understandably) a bit too self-indulgent.

This may seem like harsh criticism and I certainly hope it does not prevent people from seeing this work in development. As said, Mister Ericson is a fine performer and his intention for this ‘in development new work’ is that he has opened himself up and wants feedback to make the work better.

This is a brave thing to do and can only be praised and supported.

Tony Knight

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