If you are not familiar with the story of Dracula by Bram Stoker, it would be easy to misinterpret this detailed account between a doctor and his patient as baffling.
What seems to be a rather promising start to Halloween, Riot Act’s production of Lunatic leads the audience into the laboratory of Dr Seward as he examines his patient Renfield for “lunacy”.
As the audience settle into their seats, we are handed pills in paper cases by characters dressed as nurses. The blaring sound of eighties rock music transforms this theatre pub into a concealed area where this diagnosis takes place. The soundtrack emphasises the gothic approach to the tale. There is a desk is the corner of the stage. It is surrounded by recording equipment and a man in a lab coat stands close by. Another figure in white is thrown into the corner as if trapped in a cell. Expectations for this production are high from the offset.
Riot Act Theatre use projections on a screen as a transition indicator between the scenes. An amalgamation of footage from horror films are screened to the audience which gives the sense of time passing as the examination of Renfield occurs. Special effects are created through a soundscape of buzzing insects which intensifies the horror element of the production.
Whit Hertford’s writing is incredibly descriptive throughout the piece. What feels (at times) like two monologues is in fact a conversation; a nod towards Stoker’s epistolary novel format. Due to this, it is difficult to establish an emotional connection towards the characters due to the complexities in the language and at times it does feel quite repetitive – perhaps due to the visual setting remaining the same.
At times this production is trying to be sensationalist and misses the mark especially in the nude scene at the end. This is rather more confusing than necessary as it doesn’t add to the initial premise. Violence is also used ineffectively, though the original concept of “mind games” has a thrilling effect on the audience.
Chris Spyrides excels as Renfield. His eyes dart across the room searching for beetles which transfixes the audience. Spyrides uses his voice to emphasise that Renfield is possessed by another being, at times it is amusing to witness especially due to the quick changes between the ‘Master’ and ‘Servant’ personas which are emphasised by the successful use of accents. Dr Seward, (Justin Stahley) moves and speaks with an urgency emphasising how overwhelmed he is with the situation.
There is a clear power game between the two leads. The physical space constantly develops suggesting the struggles in their relationship. For instance there is a moment when Dr Seward enters Renfield’s cell drunk. For a second, the audience are on the edge of their seats as Renfield comforts the Doctor to sleep. Towards the end of the play, Dr Seward can only communicate to Renfield through a microphone implying that he feels intimidated by him.
This haunting play is definitely right for this time of year. With a plausible storyline and excellent acting, it’s a shame that it does not quite capture what it seemed to set out to do. Perhaps due to it being longer than it needed to be, it feels anti-climatic.
Lunatic is played at Theatre N16 until Monday 31 October. For more information, see the Theatre N16 website.