‘Stoker’ by Paul Walker produced by Ouroboros Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

‘Stoker’ by Paul Walker produced by Ouroboros Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

‘Stoker’ by Paul Walker produced by Ouroboros Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

‘Stoker’ by Paul Walker produced by Ouroboros Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

‘Stoker’ by Paul Walker produced by Ouroboros Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

‘Stoker’ by Paul Walker produced by Ouroboros Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

As Bram Stoker declares in Stoker, "people yearn to glimpse the dark side". This play by Paul Walker responds to that yearning, not only to show the dark side, but also the private side of one of Ireland’s most famous writers. And what this production, under Karl Shiels’ direction, amply illustrates is how Stoker’s native city has effectively forgotten the man behind the masterwork. In fact I was so ignorant of the details of Stoker’s life, despite Dracula being one of my favourite novels, that, embarrassingly, the programme note by Sherra Murphy and Elaine Sisson was vital pre-show reading.

Stoker’s real passion in life was theatre, and this is the foundational ground for Walker’s new play about the creator of Dracula – that his life was dedicated to the theatre and, in particular, to one theatrical giant, the English actor Henry Irving. It must have been daunting to take on the subject of Stoker as Walker must illuminate not only the public writer, but also the private man, whose most important relationship was not with his family, but with Irving, who he adored and who in turn treated him as a lackey.

The angle that Walker takes is to set the play on the eve of Stoker’s death, as he recollects his life through hallucinatory flashback and narrated memories. The challenge with this approach is to transform the fragmentary and incoherent last hours of a man driven insane by high doses of mercury into a coherent and engaging narrative. The more sustained scenes, between Stoker (Denis Conway) and his wife Florence (Ruth McGill) succeed in this and by the end of the play the audience has a more nuanced understanding of the particular unhappiness which characterised their marriage. Ruth McGill is both restrained and eloquent, and when she narrates the disastrous story of their family holiday to Whitby, when all Stoker could do was research for his vampire novel, her character is allowed to come into focus as an individual, not merely a lackey herself. As Stoker’s son Noel, Gerard Adlum is convincingly resistant and resentful towards his father. But, as with McGill, Adlum is not given an awful lot to do – waiting for a man to die is, after all, a fairly passive activity. It’s unclear to me why Walker chose to also personify the Young Noel (Conn Rogers) onstage (particularly as Adlum is young as it is). The double effect did not add to the overall understanding of either Stoker or Noel, or to the onstage dynamic – though there was a certain spooky quality to Rogers’ presence as he bitterly eyed his father.

Denis Conway is stalwart as Stoker himself, lending the role pathos and vigour, as well as humour, as during his asides to his "only friend", Archie the spider. But even this role, though he is onstage throughout, does not feel as if it has enough traction. Conway portrays Stoker’s distraction from his family and reveals his passion for Irving and for Dracula (both played by Robert O’Mahoney) in equal measure. Yet without sustained interaction with any of the characters from his life, and the constant shifts of mood and focus necessitated by his incipient madness, it’s hard for the audience to gain a full sense of the man – this is an intimate but partial portrait. And so, despite the dominant presence of Irving in his life, the audience only glimpses moments of Stoker’s relationship to the thespian, played sonorously by O’Mahoney. Likewise, the brief appearances of Dracula onstage are necessarily portrayed by O’Mahoney as spectrally distant; the doubling conveys the link between the vampire and the vampiric Irving but there is frustratingly not enough of either.

The most shocking and moving moment of the play is when Conway gives a howl of pain at learning of the ‘death’ of the Lyceum, when Irving informs him he has sold the theatre. The theatre as a real and idealised presence in Stoker’s life is thus the most central aspect of his being and there is real emotion in Stoker/Conway’s realisation of its loss.

The design of the show is very effective; Marcus Costello’s set represents both Stoker’s home and the Lyceum stage. Much depends on Andy Cummins’ excellent lighting design to convey the shifts between hallucination, memory and reality, while Roger Gregg’s music opens and closes the show in suitably haunting and melodic tones. Overall, the production works to energise and bring to light Stoker’s own life and history, to bring him out of the shadow of Dracula. In educating a twenty-first audience about who Stoker was, the show is very successful, but it falls short of creating a full and lasting portrait of the man.

Emilie Pine lectures in drama and film at University College Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Stoker by Paul Walker

27 Oct – 11 November, 2012

Produced by Ouroboros Theatre
In Samuel Beckett Theatre

Directed by Karl Shiels

Research by Cúlra Research Services

Musical Director: Roger Gregg

Lighting Design: Andy Cummins

Costume Design: Sinéad Cuthbert

Set Design: Marcus Costello

With: Denis Conway, Robert O’Mahoney, Ruth McGill, Gerard Adlum, Conn Rogers.