Hunting vampires – Van Helsing on Dracula

EVIL HUNT: David Whitney plays Vampire hunting hero Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula at Civic Centre, July 18. Photo: supplied

EVIL HUNT: David Whitney plays Vampire hunting hero Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula at Civic Centre, July 18. Photo: supplied

An interview with a vampire hunter was conducted under the sun of Darwin, where Van Helsing (David Whitney) is enjoying a day off stage during a busy tour of Australia.

Brisbane based theatre company Shake & Stir presents Dracula at Mount Isa Civic Centre on July 23, after sell out season at QPAC. 

Dracula by Bram Stoker

This is your second tour of Dracula – you must enjoy it?

I was very happy to do a second season, I actually turned down some other work to ensure I was able to stay with Dracula, because I love the production and I love the part (or parts) I play; Renfield who is the lunatic in the asylum, and Van Helsing who is the chieftan vampire hunter and expert on all things vampirical. They’re great parts and I love them. 

It’s a wonderful, exciting, funny, scary production. Like an old ghost train where it slows down and something  jumps out at you. That’s the idea – We wanted it to be scary and sexy and exciting. You can taste the blood – literally, sometimes, we taste it. The front row might get some on them – it washes out, I hasten to add. Because of the amount of shows we do, it washes out straight away. Our poor stage manager. We use a lot of it. There’s blood everywhere. That’s a huge part of the show – the blood plot.

Is there an age restriction?

Probably 14 or 15 up? It does have horror themes and it is quite sexy. And you know, it requires a certain sense of maturity I suppose to get on board the ride.

But I have to say responses around the country have been overwhelming, all around the country. People have said it’s “just like watching a horror at the cinema”, There are some smoke and fire effects. We’ve got all sorts of magic tricks that we use to help tell the story.

Van Helsing seems like a dream role. What do you like about his character?

MODERN VAMPIRES: "Van Helsing gets tempted himself towards the end, not by Dracula but by one of the vampire women." - Actor David Whitney. Photo: supplied

MODERN VAMPIRES: "Van Helsing gets tempted himself towards the end, not by Dracula but by one of the vampire women." - Actor David Whitney. Photo: supplied

He’s mostly got all the answers, he’s very smart, although occasionally Dracula throws a few curve balls at him and puts him under a little bit of pressure. 

I also found quite a lot of humour in the character because he’s so blunt and direct, he’s from Denmark and he’s very blunt in the way that he assesses things which upsets quite a lot of the English characters. There are some good lines where he is... less than tactical, let’s put it that way.

He’s great fun to play, obviously you know I get to do a big fight at the end. If Dracula’s the villain I guess I’m at least one of the heroes which is a nice part to play.

HUNTING DRAC: David Whitney is vampire hunter Van Helsing in Shake & Stir's production of Bram Stoker's Dracula, in Mount Isa on July 18.

HUNTING DRAC: David Whitney is vampire hunter Van Helsing in Shake & Stir's production of Bram Stoker's Dracula, in Mount Isa on July 18.

Dracula is such a classic gothic tale. When did you first come across it?

I’ve seen many of the movie versions over the years, and Dracula’s one of the most adapted characters to the screen – I think Sherlock Holmes is the other one – it’s a very popular story to adapt in many, many different forms.

There’s the Dracula movies from early Hollywood, the Bela Lugosi movies of the 30s and 40s, silent movie Nos Veratu, the 1992 Gary Oldman film made by Frances Ford Coppola, but also more recently True Blood, Twilight – it's a story that keeps getting adapted.

Ours is based very much on the Bram Stoker novel, and I hadn’t read that until we were preparing to do this production.

What did you think of the book?

I found the book quite difficult to read; it’s in journals and letters and there’s lots of excess characters that just don’t help that sharp narrative. 

We had a script development in May of 2014 where we sat around the table for a couple of weeks and worked out which parts of the story we’d keep and which parts didn’t really adapt very well for stage.

We’ve adapted it into 100 minutes of straight through, driving narrative. One thing we certainly achieve is it’s like a rollercoaster, the momentum just keeps building.

I read the book again before rehearsals, just to get more detail. Van Helsing is described in great detail and so Bram Stoker gives me a lot of information which helps me as a character.

How does Shake & Stir’s version propel itself into 2017?

It’s interesting you use the word ‘propel’ because part of the appeal of this production is our revolving stage.

We have a turntable with stairs built onto a two story set that continually revolves during the show.

It changes the scene from Dracula’s castle, to a coach, to a train, to all sorts of different locations that are required in the telling of the story, which of course travels from Transylvania back to London.

The revolve gives it a huge amount of momentum, and that was really something we wanted to achieve with the story, the suspense – but also that momentum you get in a horror story where it just keeps moving forward, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat the whole time.

We’ve been very faithful to the novel, mostly, though we’ve had to cut a few characters to sharpen the narrative.

And we’ve kept it within period – it’s set in the late 1800s but the design has a more modern twist within that. As you can see on the poster for the show he’s in a biker’s leather jacket which gives it a slightly more modern feel.

Dracula starts as an ancient, old man and the more blood he drinks the younger and more verile he becomes, until he becomes that image on the poster.

With our vampire obsession in mind, is it hard to play someone who hunts them?

Van Helsing sees the evil, and also from a religious point of view he’s very much a believer in God, whereas Dracula represents the Devil. He's very much on the side of good, but of course the attraction of evil is something human beings struggle with. 

I think Dracula’s been so popular over time because he is very attractive, very alluring, it’s got a whole sexual element to the whole biting of the neck, the draining of the blood, that people find exciting and dangerous, and of course people are attracted to danger and it’s just hovering on the edge, it’s not repulsive like some monsters, he’s kind of exciting and menacing.

It’s very clear in the novel which is written in Victorian times when that sort of sexuality was repressed and under the surface. I suppose people were desperate to explore that, but only going so far. Van Helsing gets tempted himself towards the end, not by Dracula but by one of the vampire women. 

Tickets for Shake & Stir’s Dracula are available from MIETV or the Civic Centre box office.

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