REVIEW: Nosferatu by Keziah Warner – based on the 1922 film

In recent years, Malthouse has commissioned a number of works based on classic Australian novels. We’ve had Bliss and Wake in Fright and Picnic at Hanging Rock and Looking for Alibrandi. The play version of Cloudstreet also got a new production. Each of these works took the original text and interrogated it, with mixed results – but all were memorable stage adaptations that had clear dramatic intention and something to say about the source material.

One of the most interesting parts of Matt Lutton’s production of Picnic at Hanging Rock was that it was steeped in the history of the story: the novel, the film and the fact that, for a long time, people thought it was based on real life events. It told and re-told the story, placing the play on a continuum – here’s the next evolution of this myth of the Australian bush.

Nosferatu by Keziah Warner is based on the 1922 film directed by F.W. Murnau. This, of course, was an unathorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the inspiration for countless vampire films across the history of cinema, television and twentieth-century literature.

This production doesn’t seem interested in this context though. Perhaps the legacy of Dracula and vampire fiction has permeated popular culture so much that instead of reckoning with the weight of it, the Malthouse team has decided to relocate the story to Tasmania and have the audience laugh at all the bits they recognise.

The play opens with a monologue from Kate, warning us we are about to witness a small-town tragedy that we’ve probably heard about on the news. It alludes to the notion that news stories are never the fully story – and I’m thinking about the massacre at Port Arthur.

Count Orlok is a property developer who lives in Sydney. Tom visits in order to get him to invest in the town of Bluewater, Tasmania – a mining town without a mine, a place that is desperate for reinvigoration. And now I’m thinking about mainlanders using the island state for pleasure and the decades of logging and mining that threatened the environment down there.

Orlok arrives in Bluewater (it’s blue because the mining run-off has made the lake bluer and, consequently, a tourist attraction), and he starts a winery – the vines growing much more quickly than expected because not only can he suck blood and fly, he’s got a green thumb. The ongoing environmental disasters have already mutated an orchid into a venus fly trap, though, so it seems a fitting place for a vampire, I’m sorry, a nosferatu, to settle down.

The concerns about nature fade once Orlok entrances the town and now we’re just waiting for the blood to start flowing. Do we care about Tom and his partner, Ellen? And what of Dr Kate and her dying mother? And now that the Mayor of Bluewater is eating bugs, are the townsfolk going to listen to him when he declares a state of emergency or a lockdown? And now I’m thinking about the pandemic.

Vampires, as we know, can be a metaphor for a lot of things. In her Writer’s Note in the program, Warner says she’s leaving it up to the audience to decide on the metaphor being explored here. And, in some senses, she’s right to do so – we all bring our own experience to theatre and to vampire texts. We all see these strange immortal creatures of the night in different ways.

Unfortunately, this adaptation of an adaptation might have worked better if it was more focused. It’s high on melodrama, but light on camp. It plays some scenes deadly straight and others try for comedy. Its mash-up of styles and tones borders on incoherence. I mean, the spine of the story is there but for the most part, it simply relies on an audience’s recognition of the tropes.

Are venture capitalists the vampires of our time? Probably but this play doesn’t do much with that idea, except by running it into the ground. If Stoker’s novel was partly about a fear of foreigners, this play just reduces that to a fear of mainlanders – with only the briefest of allusions to Orlok originally coming from further afield.

There are some clever moments in the script – Orlock’s rant about Christian iconography was fun and Ellen’s worry that Tom might be in love with the Count felt like a scene dropped in from a bisexual love triangle play that felt fresh and gave me a couple of big laughs.

Jacob Collins-Levy’s Orlok is mercurial and magnetic. He’s able to be menacing and funny, straddling the wildly changing tone of the piece.

Romanie Harper’s set is impressive in its scale and versatility, though a black and white chevron floor with red drapes in the back made me think more of Twin Peaks than any particular vampire story.

Paul Jackson’s lighting is the real star of the show, giving us deep blacks and creeping shadows and moments of real theatrical wonder.

It’s a pity these effective and evocative moments were part of a play that is unfocused in a production that doesn’t seem to have a point of view. All the metaphors this show tries out could have worked, if any of them were fully followed through.

In the end, I really wished they’d leaned into the humour. The audience was laughing in recognition, even when those parts weren’t meant to be funny. Instead, what we got is a bloodless reworking of a legend.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Nosferatu is haunting the Malthouse until March 5th.

Photos by Pia Johnson