Saturday, 10 August 2013

strange_complex: (Vampira)
Here's another thing I saw recently with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy: a theatrical production of Bram Stoker's Dracula put on by these people in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. It was a blissful summer's day at the height of the heatwave, and the show was staged in what must once have been the abbey cloisters, but is now a large square enclosure carpeted with grass and overlooked by ruined towers and flocks of birds. We took picnics and folding chairs, and settled down in the early evening sunshine, while members of the cast circulated doing a little in-character banter:

2013-07-18 18.53.29

The set-up was that they were the staff of an undertakers' company: Drakesmith and Graveston, services to the dead since 1822. They had been charged with conducting Jonathan Harker's funeral service, and were circulating around the mourners to enquire how we were connected with the deceased and sell us the following order of service for two florins:

Order of service

Two pounds were agreed to be an acceptable exchange rate for the florins, and of course the order of service was also the programme for the show. As the performance began, the undertakers explained that as part of the funeral service they would be reading out extracts from Jonathan Harker's diary at his family's request, and as they did so they switched into the roles of the characters from the story, acting it out pretty much as it unfolds within the book. The letters, telegrams, diary entries and newspaper articles written by other characters were explained as having been pasted into Harker's diary as a complete record of his experiences. And although I was a little unsure about the use of the undertakers as a sort of framing device for the main story, in fact it worked pretty well. In between scenes, they discussed the strange events which they had been reading about with one another, wondering what might come next and how they might feel in the same situation - basically acting much like the chorus in a Greek tragedy to help bridge the gap between the real life of the audience and the fantastical world of the story.

You can't, of course, have very much in the way of complicated stage machinery or even exits and entrances when you are staging an outdoor show, so the performance relied very much on simple devices and the use of the audience's imagination. Coffins doubled as beds, steps, benches on the cliff at Whitby and seats in a railway carriage, while their lids served as castle doors when required, and the performers swiftly cast aside the cloak of one character or donned the skirts of another as they changed roles. But it all worked very effectively to sweep the imagination from craggy Transylvania one moment to bustling Victorian London the next. Indeed, the cast consisted of only five actors, with most of them doubling up not only as undertakers, but also as at least two characters each within the story. But again, the constraints proved a virtue, adding extra layers to the story. I especially liked the casting of the same actor as both Van Helsing and Dracula, which of course prevented the two from ever meeting of course but did position them very nicely as matched adversaries who have more in common than they would like to admit.

I was busy eating my picnic and then sipping the summery rose cocktail which I had prepared for the first hour or so of the show, but after that I realised that an outdoor performance in the sunshine meant that I could easily take photos without disturbing anybody. So I got to work, tweeting the results and prompting a lot of people to tweet back in response saying how cool it looked and they wished that they were there. You'll have to imagine the scene which took place at Castle Dracula, in Whitby and on the good ship Demeter in the first half of the story while I was eating and drinking, but these are the high points of the rest of the show )

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strange_complex: (Christ Church Mercury)
More reviews, and I am finally on to the books which I read in 2012 - yay! I can't honestly recommend this one, though. I bought it on the basis of a review in the Oxford Alumni magazine, which made it sound rather Philip Pullmanesque, all full of vampires and witches and a mysterious magical manuscript. But I'm afraid that, although it certainly does feature vampires and witches and a magical manuscript, it fell well short of my expectations as an actual story.

In fact, I nearly gave up on it altogether part-way through the first chapter, which was basically a massive info-dump about the main character's back-story, told from a first-person perspective as she is going about a day's work in the Bodleian Library. Coming at a point when I had not yet been given any reasons to care about that character, this was neither terribly interesting, nor stylistically pleasing. It felt a lot like I was reading the author's file of notes about her, except awkwardly inserted into the narrative. I persevered, though, on the grounds that I have paid for the book and was damned well going to get my money's worth.

As the story developed, it also became clear that this main character was basically one huge great stonking Mary Sue. The descriptions of her physical appearance closely match the author portrait on the back cover, both author and character are American-born historians working on the history of science (esp. alchemy) who have spent a lot of time in Oxford, and, whaddaya know, the character begins the story believing that she has no magical powers and wanting to live her life as an ordinary person, but turns out to be the most powerful witch of her generation, with an astonishing range of hitherto-unknown abilities, never seen together in a single being within living memory, all emerging in her over the course of the story. She is the only person who has ever been able to retrieve the magical manuscript at the heart of the story from the Bodleian stacks; the mysterious and incredibly handsome vampire character of course falls deeply in love with her at first sight (going completely against what we are told of both his own character and social convention in their world); and she basically turns out to be the unwilling key player in a centuries-old struggle between various types of magical creatures, all of whom are desperate to either kill or or lay down their lives for her. In short, she couldn't be any more of a cliché if the author had deliberately been setting out to parody the entire Mary Sue trope.

There is a lot else in the story which reads like a pastiche, too. The main character's discovery that she not only has magical powers, but particularly choice ones too, is very Harry Potteresque - although to be fair many fantastical stories have used this device, and for that reason I'm prepared to let it pass. It's a trope, but a trope doesn't necessarily mean a bad story. There's a lot more, though. There are a lot of love scenes about the vampire character fighting against his natural desire to chow down on the witch character because he loves her so much, which I believe is these days a mainstay of the Twilight stories. The uneasy co-existence within one story-world of several supernatural species - vampires, witches and (more originally) daemons - is again familiar from Twilight, not to mention True Blood, Being Human, the Buffyverse and a bunch of others. The author's apparent belief that moving the characters from exotic setting to exotic setting (Oxford, a French chateau, New York state) and going on a lot about sensual luxuries (silken sheets, old wines, architecture) will make the story interesting can be traced back to Anne Rice. And Dan Brown has kindly lent the device of a quasi-legendary secret organisation with roots in the period of the Crusades (the Knights of Lazarus) and a malign panel of beings seeking to control the workings of the world without ever revealing themselves in public (the Congregation).

Towards the end, the story also involves a little time travel, since one of the (very many) magical abilities which the main character develops over the course of the narrative is 'time-walking' - that is, the ability to step back into a particular period in the past, aided by a couple of artefacts which have come from the place and time she wants to get to. This perked me up for a moment, because I loves me some time travel, but in practice it was incredibly badly-realised. She and her vampire paramour travel back to his mother's French castle, during a period of several weeks (if not months) earlier in the novel when they had been staying there. But somehow they don't encounter their previous selves while they are there. Instead, their previous selves are mysteriously and conveniently entirely missing from the castle, while the new versions of the two main characters interact perfectly freely with the occupants without anyone ever saying either "Oh, but we thought you'd gone out for the evening?" or "Hold on, weren't you in the library just now?" or anything of the sort. In other words, all the cool fun stuff about time travel just wasn't there at all, so that they might as well not have done it.

Meanwhile, the plot itself unfolds incredibly slowly, with very little happening for long sections of the book. There is a lot of material which could very easily have been edited out, and a general feeling that the real concern of the book throughout was with character-delineation and world-building rather than plot. That would be fine if it was good character-delineation and world-building, but as I've explained above, it wasn't. In the end it didn't come as much of a surprise when I finished the book and discovered that the story was by no means over - rather, it was only really beginning, and there would be a sequel out soon to continue it.

Weirdly, all that said, once I had got past the abysmal first chapter, I found myself rather enjoying reading the rest of the book. I think this was because I had realised that it was so second-rate that there wasn't really much point remembering the fine details of the plot or characterisation in order to see how they would pay off later, or analysing the story motifs in order to spot clever allusions or inter-texts. It just wasn't worth that kind of attention, and this meant that instead it simply became comforting brain-candy at the end of each day. I even kind of got to like the predictable, unchanging behaviour of the main characters. But that's still not enough reason to buy the sequel.

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