Writer Kate Kerrow joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her novel-to-stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The atmospheric production will have its London premiere at the historic London Library next month.
Q: You have done novel-to-stage adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and The Brothers Grimm’s ‘Cinderella’ in the past. How did you approach Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’?
A: Bringing much loved stories to the stage is always challenging for the adapter – you want to give everyone their favourite bits, honour each reader’s bond, but largely that’s unrealistic.
Plays and novels are very different beasts, and they’re beautiful in their differences. While the novel can traverse time and country in giant leaps, I feel stage adaptation works best when it shines a light on an element and takes it apart.
Dracula is roughly 400 pages long. A play of 120 minutes is roughly 90 pages long. So the question of loyalty is a big one. You need an overall approach on a text like this – mine was to identify thematic interest, and then further hone in on characterisation. Action became informed not just by dogged loyalty to the novel’s chronology, but by the psychology of the protagonists when they were under our new thematic constraints.
Q: Do you remember the first time you read Stoker’s ‘Dracula’? What has your relationship to the novel been like over the years?
A: I think I was about 16 when I first read it. I was completely gripped by it – the diary entries really excited me, they seemed so intimate, and I was struck by the sense of tension. I think I vaguely remember a sense of claustrophobia in reading the female characters, and an awareness of their vulnerability, but I didn’t fully engage with the novel in a feminist sense then.
Years later, there are different aspects you hold on to. The sense of women as territory was so striking to me when I was adapting, and women’s passivity, their perceived capacity to be easily inhabited. By contrast, the male characters are so active, so appealing to the masculine ideal of being righteous saviours.
Q: The London Library – the venue where Bram Stoker spent seven years researching his gothic masterpiece – will host the production. Did the setting play into your thinking during the writing process?
A: The adaptation was designed around being in a library because it was intended as a site-specific piece, so the setting informed a lot of my choices. The whole plot moves to the dead Lucy’s library, which created the modern frame story, and the books on the shelves stimulate action, echoing the epistolary elements of the novel. I’m excited to see it in such an incredible setting.
Q: The adaptation transports the story to the 1950s. Why did you choose this period?
A: It’s always exciting to transport stories to new contexts, but I do think the choices need to be meaningful. The brief was that the adaptation would be a two-hander, and Helen and I were most interested in the relationship between Mina and Jonathan – their sense of repressed sexuality.
In the 1950s, Freud was idealised somewhat, and the idea of therapy, of curing harmed minds, of exploring psychological repression was a natural thematic interest for us. There is also the changing role of women post-war – although working class women made up a large part of the labour force, a lot of the wealthier women (like Mina) would return home to domesticity, having lost the capacity to contribute to society. This couldn’t not have had a psychological impact.
It felt like there was potential to explore Mina’s capability and desire to be useful in a world that wanted her to be still.
Q: You have done terrific with The Heroine Collective to recognise the achievements of some remarkable women. Was this work part of your thinking when writing for Mina?
A: Thank you! I’m always thinking about everything in terms of the female experience and perspective. That’s the whole purpose of my writing and it always will be –every writer has their thematic interest. And I’m particularly interested in how women live under historical contexts.
I like Stoker’s Mina in many ways, but I wanted to make her even more of a story-driver. I definitely wanted to write a Mina who was active and whose psychological journey was at the play’s heart, to allow her to take up space.
Q: What do you think Stoker’s Dracula has to say/teach us in 2018?
A: Stoker’s observations about the threat of the outsider, the foreigner, invasion are all really relevant today. In Dracula there is this intense fear of the unknown, of the uncontrollable, but simultaneously an avid curiosity about it. It’s interpretative, but I feel there is a warning in the text about letting our own fears and biases lead us to make dangerous decisions.
And of course, there is lots of stuff about how society perceives women, and sadly I don’t feel a lot of it is that wildly outdated. It’s so important to look at past narratives to observe our historical behaviours and prejudices, to learn how we can unpick social structures and do things better.
Q: 2 February is fast approaching. What hopes do you have for the production?
A: High hopes! Helen Tennison is a wonderful director. I love working with her – she has an innate understanding of my work and always brings out such complex layers, uses space with real innovation.
The audio-visual (designed by Eva Auster) in the piece is stunning, and responded to my text so sensitively. I was blown away by it. Can’t wait to see the production in this new space.
Q: What else do you have coming up in 2019?
A: I’ve just finished my first novel so I’m working on getting that to publication.
The Heroine Collective has just partnered with a production hub called Scary Little Girls, and we’ve been awarded 50k from the Heritage Lottery to collate the testimonies of the women who lived at Greenham Common Peace Camp for a national exhibition, and specially designed website. So that’s taking up a good portion of 2019, and so far it’s completely fascinating and I’m loving every minute.