Not Just Another Vampire Story

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Vampires, in general, are not really in my wheelhouse; somehow, through all these years, I’ve managed to miss that particular genre of the cultural zeitgeist. Admittedly, I occasionally take part in conversations on the subject, smiling broadly and nodding when my friends veer in that direction. So when the opportunity to see the National Theatre of Scotland’s Let the Right One In–a romantic coming-of-age vampire story based on a Swedish novel and film–presented itself, I thought there would be no better time or venue in which to enter vampire territory.

St. Ann’s Warehouse is a perfect venue for this production, the massive scale of the building complementing the scale of the gorgeously-designed forest set. The stage itself is sparse in nature, trees spring up from a snow-covered floor and climb upward seemingly forever, stretching into the ceiling. Any and all movement seems possible, whether it be vertical, horizontal, or otherwise. Before the show begins, actors walk casually across the stage, past the only other set piece, a playground jungle gym. The audience chats on until they notice the movement. And as a hush falls across the crowd, the sheer size of the upcoming spectacle becomes clear.

The DNA of Let the Right One In exists in the beautiful movement, as directed by John Tiffany. Set pieces slide into and out of the forest set, seamlessly transitioning the audience from one scene to the next and opening the door for the story’s magical realism. Actors jump to and from set pieces, climbing trees and the jungle gym with ease and fluidity, making the occasional abrupt or jerky moment especially impactful. The physical movement does a wonderful job of highlighting and reflecting the skills of the cast, most of whom play multiple characters with distinction and grace. Rebecca Benson, who plays the vampire Eli, is a particularly effective physical actor, at one point falling silently backwards off the jungle gym and disappearing from sight. Overall, some of the most striking images of the play are when the cast moves as one. These highly-choreographed movement sequences often happen after dramatic moments in the plot. For me, the most notable moment came right before the intermission, when the entire cast looked to the sky and a fresh layer of snow started to fall.

The fluidity of the actors and set, and the rapid-fire nature of the scenes, help make this cinematic story theatrical. I’m not sure, however, how well all the filmic elements translate  to the stage. Jack Thorne’s adaptation of the movie is necessarily sparse. This is at times incredibly effective, allowing room for the charged silences of first love and longing for someone you can’t have. The text and silences highlight the acting skills of Cristian Ortega, whose character falls in love with Eli, especially well; you can feel that he is a teenager of great depth, finding in Eli a saving grace from bullying and a broken home. At other times, however, the sparseness of the text feels clunky and stilted, causing the action to sputter. A languid and ambient soundtrack plays throughout the entirety of the show, and while this feels very cinematic, it gives away most of the suspenseful elements before they are felt.

One element that translates exceptionally well to the stage is the blood. It is at times surprising, a little gross, and only used when absolutely necessary–it also unexpectedly adds an extra layer of tenderness. When it appears, it is another reminder of the impossibility of getting to know another human being because of all the things that keep our true feelings at bay. It‘s a visceral reminder of the way in which our insides sometimes spill out, and we are powerless to control them or what another person’s reaction to them might be.

I’m told the original film is amazing. I would believe it, having now experienced the scale, the tenderness, and the universality of this story as translated to the stage. And because of this production, the movie is now on my “must-watch-and-soon” list.

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