Review of Thushara Hettihamu’s Dracula, presented by AnandaDrama and staged on July 10 and 12 at Lionel Wendt Theatre

AnandaDrama has come a long way since 2013. That’s what I could gather at Lionel Wendt last Sunday. Thushara Hettihamu’s Dracula opened for the third and final night. Let me come out with it. I loved it. I saw energy, enthusiasm, and spontaneity: qualities that rarely get together. That’s why I didn’t just laugh. Why I felt what I was laughing at. I admit that’s a vague way of putting it. But there’s no other way.

On the cast I’ll write shortly. Meanwhile, here are some reflections. For a source text that has been adapted, distorted, reconfigured, and in other ways modified, Hettihamu’s Dracula was a breath of fresh air. I can’t describe it without assessing how its organisers structured the play. But let me make one point clear. In this version there was a subtle intermingling of horror and comedy maintained throughout. That wasn’t its greatest strength. But it helped.

The program notes try to justify the play’s four-Act structure. It needn’t. That structure was kept for a purpose; to pay “homage to the novel’s epistolary style.” Coupled with the quirks of characters and the way the actors transited into multiple roles, it also made something clear; the play’s biggest strength. More on that a little later.

Dracula doesn’t rely on a unity of milieu or time. There is no compression. Only variety. In such a context it would have been a miracle if the cast didn’t err. Well, miracles happen. Hettihamu’s cast did his script proud. They stuck to two things that vindicated them in the end. One was a swiftness of movement. The other was humour, sustained throughout but not to the point of overkill.

Playing two roles is a challenge. Playing five or more is worse. You’ve got to associate yourself with every character and that in a medium which demands perfection and nothing but. Well, seeing the cast at work with a multiplicity of roles, I was taken aback. A case-by-case assessment would be difficult at this point. But with a limited cast, that would also be appropriate.

Dinoo Wickramage as Mina Murray acted her part with enough sensitivity to make us ease into her other roles. Eraj Gunewardena as Jonathan (Reinfeld) Harker hovered between his Jekyll-and-Hyde halves well. He changed accents. And moods. That helped.

Charith Dissanayake’s dim-witted Dr John Seward couldn’t connect the dots in front of him so much that it became a running gag. I haven’t seen Charith’s other performances. This was his first I saw. He enthralled me. Maybe it was Seward’s clumsiness. Maybe it was his rendition of Abraham Lincoln (of all people!). I’m not sure. Either way, he kept us on tenterhooks. And made us laugh.

I haven’t seen Vishan Gunawardena’s other performances either, but his Van Helsing played Hardy to Charith’s Laurel brilliantly. I’m not bluffing. His other roles helped him here. As both William and Molly, the caretaker and nurse at Seward’s asylum, his constant Cockney-accented exclamation “The Ship of the Dead!” was rib-tickling.

Two sequences come to my mind. In the first of them, Van Helsing repeats the “Ship of the Dead!” line, giving away the “Vishan” in both Helsing and William and deliberately opening the audience to the artifice beneath the art. In the other, like Inspector Clouseau from A Shot in the Dark, he uses his deductive powers to come to an incredible conclusion: that Lucy bit the necks of certain dead children. I didn’t just see humour here though. I saw spontaneity. Rapid and sustained. Rare.

I’m not so sure about Nandun Dissanayake. For a play called Dracula he was featured for about 10 minutes. Even the Count laments this, breaking the fourth wall as he does so. He was comic, to say the least. He did not appear strained. I didn’t see Nandun there, moreover. I saw a blood-sucking Count transposed from Transylvania into Lionel Wendt. This isn’t flattery. This is what I noticed. His Dracula was essentially a self-parody, but not to a point where he made us aware of it. He kept a fine balance between the Dracula of Bela Lugosi and that of Leslie Nielson.

Let me be honest. I didn’t see Bela Lugosi’s Dracula in him. I saw Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi.

And in a way, that summed up the show for me. Dracula wasn’t just parody. It shouldn’t have been. Like all well-written plays it was subtle. There was humour and there were laughs. But that wasn’t parody. Wasn’t farce. That was something indefinable, which went beyond the comedy-horror dichotomy it played and (in the end) broke the rift between audience and stage with. The best way I can describe it (if I may take the liberty to do so) is by comparing Hettihamu’s Dracula to (who else?) Landau’s Lugosi.

There’s a sequence in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood which might make this comparison a little easier. Wood (Johnny Depp) is walking along. He’s dejected. Doesn’t know what to do. He comes across a coffin shop. Goes in. Sees Bela Lugosi (Landau), once a star but now down on both luck and money. Bela’s in a coffin, like Dracula, and seems tantalisingly like his (virtual) namesake. The music builds to a crescendo. He wakes up. Music stops. “This is the most uncomfortable coffin I’ve ever been in. Your selection is quite shoddy. You are wasting my time!” he exclaims.

I don’t know how to define this. I don’t know where it fits in. Self-parody? Pathos? In the end I suppose it doesn’t really matter. That’s pretty much what I can say of Thushara Hettihamu’s Dracula. There’s comedy. There are laughs. Suspense too. To define them all with one word would be beside the point though. And at the end of the day, that’s what good theatre is or rather should be. That was this play’s greatest strength.

Sure, there were weaknesses. Two of them, in fact. A friend of mine found the story a little confusing. I didn’t, but I saw his point: with 100 minutes and a near-chaotic plot-line, you need to pay attention. The slightest distraction and you’ll miss it. The other weakness was the portrayal of Ranjit the Sikh servant. That was unneeded. Frilled. It reinforced a stereotype (the red turban and his name makes it obvious where he was ripped off from) which jarred. Other than that, the play moved along just fine.

My only regret is my choice of ticket. I was seated at the back. There were other people. Naturally enough, there was conversation. I couldn’t hear what was going on in the story at times. Trivialities to be sure, but in the end that took away what I could readily have taken in had I sat at the front. My mistake.

Dracula wasn’t just good theatre on a human level. In its use of props (the choice of using boys who snarl like wolves to rearrange them was ingenious) and its film-like silhouetted images (providing another laugh, with the image of the towering Count “emptying” the London-bound ship), I was truly mesmerised. I don’t usually say this about plays, but if Dracula were shown 10 times, I’d see them all.I stand by what I said before, hence. “AnandaDrama” has progressed. Admirably.

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