The date is 1897, the story is Dracula, but that is just about everything that Morna Pearson has kept in her retelling of Stoker’s Gothic classic. An all-female and non-binary cast come together to tell a story that has previously been awash with gullible men and 200-year-old vampires. Pearson takes the Victorian rulebook and rips it up, calling out misogynistic rhetoric of the time and making Mina the central character in her new home, exploring dark humour and darker truths.
What was the process of writing this retelling like?
It began with National Theatre of Scotland asking if I would want to adapt Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I said yes straightaway. They correctly assumed that I would want to relocate it to the North East of Scotland, which is where I’m from and where I write most of my work. Thankfully, the link that Stoker had to Cruden Bay, and the inspiration it gave him, granted us the permission from beyond the grave to relocate the story.
I had to read Dracula afresh and try to clear my mind of any vampire-related media that I have consumed over the past few decades. I was quite adamant that the novel alone would be the inspiration for the play, and that I wouldn’t get distracted by anything else. What hit me initially was the potential of Mina as a protagonist; she has a lot of agency and intelligence in the novel. Whilst the structure follows multiple characters, in theatre you have to justify the existence of your characters, more so than in the literary world. I felt as though Mina would do well at leading us through the story. It seemed right to keep the story set in the time that it was written, to interrogate how that would affect Mina’s character, so the limitations of and expectations for women at the time have all been fed into the story.
Sally Cookson, the director, came on board and she works very holistically and visually. I am very page-oriented. We have had to work out how we work best together. There’s a lot of movement and music involved in the storytelling; it’s not too text-heavy. There’s air for the story to breathe and for the actors to show off their multitude of talents.
How easy was it to translate the location onto a Scottish landscape?
We’ve kept Transylvania as the home of Dracula and his ancestors. Aberdeen takes the place of London in the novel; Cruden Bay takes the place of Whitby. The novel dots around all sorts of places, but with the format of the play, the concept of travel did not seem as interesting. We’ve kept it to three locations. Setting it in Aberdeen, rather than London, gives the story a more claustrophobic feel.
Although Aberdeen was a city at the time, it only had a population of about 150,000, so it’s less easy to hide in. Cruden Bay is a small-town setting, which gives an air of vulnerability: the idea of the predator closing in. In terms of language, I mostly write in a light, accessible Scottish dialect. Some of the characters use the North East Doric dialect, then some don’t. There was still quite a large movement of people around that area at the time.
What drew you to Mina as the focal point of the play?
You have to make massive decisions in any adaptation, some you wish you didn’t have to make. I saw a lot of adaptations of Dracula that did not give Mina the platform she deserved, and often meshed Lucy and Mina into one character or even an entirely different character, with no real voice or agency. That’s not true of the novel. Mina has a vital role in defeating Dracula. This adaptation is telling her story, filtered through 21st-century eyes, not the male gaze. There aren’t as many versions that explore that.
You have an all-female and non-binary cast. Could you talk about how that works, alongside discussions about gender that so often occur around Gothic criticism?
Having an all-female and non-binary cast allowed us to double down on examining the gender roles of the time. There were rigid, Victorian rules and if you didn’t meet the criteria, you were seen as other, disruptive, or ill. Unfortunately, those ideas are still relevant in discussions today. Ideas about how we fit into society, or why we fit in.
Does that approach unlock parts of the story that would normally be overlooked?
It enables us to give voices to people and characters that aren’t seen as heroic or effective. The research of a female Scottish writer, Emily Gerard, who wrote about Transylvania and folklore, is referenced in the play. So we can give a platform to female voices of the time. We can make sure that women have a place in history.
As modern audiences we find many elements of the Gothic to be humorous, like the characters’ heightened sensibility. How important is it to strike that balance between humour and the more sinister moments?
It helps to communicate otherwise heavy subject matter and deliver those messages in an entertaining way, through dark humour. Dr Seward, who runs the asylum, says some very outrageous things which would have been normal for the time. You can either laugh or cry at them. For the majority of the time, we’ve chosen the ‘laugh’ route. In the novel, I had to laugh at how snobbish Jonathan Harker was, and the judgements he made about foreign people, for example.
In this version, he’s more accessible, open-minded and sensitive. He is symbolic of the hope for the future of masculinity, I suppose. Whereas Dr Seward is stuck in his ways, in the system. He’s happy with the status quo, because he benefits from it. To bring it back to your question: things with humour in them are more honest and reflective of real life. Who doesn’t laugh every day? Who doesn’t talk about heavy topics, and is able to have a laugh about it?
You have Mina situated in an asylum in a world which occurs after Stoker’s text has ended. Now that we talk openly about mental health, how much did this inform the decision to continue the story in this way?
I was very drawn to Renfield’s character and I wanted to unpick what their story was. Their scenes were always going to take place in the asylum. During the development phase of the production, when Sally came on board, she wanted to find a framing device for the narrative. Movement and music are integral to Sally’s process, so she wanted to find a way in, theatrically, in order to bring the story to life.
Opening up where Renfield lives didn’t seem like too big a leap. We did a lot of research on asylums, which is what they were called back then. Whilst the production doesn’t necessarily have the space to show the complexities of psychiatric care at the time, we have hopefully managed to shine a light on how it clashed with Victorian values. We ask the question: who gets to decide who isn’t fit for the outside world?
You mentioned that you didn’t want to be ‘distracted’ by the material surrounding Stoker’s original text, but how does it feel to be adding to that vast amount of material?
Mixed feelings. Exciting, but also scary. I think it’s a valid retelling and one that has a place alongside the others. There’s room for different interpretations and for examining the story afresh. That’s why the story endures, because of what it provides for people’s imaginations, interpretations, and reflections of our own times. In a decade there will be another fresh look at it, I’m sure.