Theatre review: Nosferatu, Malthouse

A modern telling of a classic tale plays around with a pastiche of Gothic tropes.

US essayist Joan Didion said it perfectly: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ The Malthouse Theatre’s latest offering – Nosferatu – takes the notion a step further by telling a story exploring the ways in which we die. This theatrical experience is a tight, atmospheric and highly enjoyable romp through myth, social commentary, environmentalism and the frailties of the human condition.

The result is a delightful, funny and grotesque (in the most glorious sense of the word) pastiche of colour, movement, text and imagery. It’s also a whole heap of fun that pays homage to obvious film tropes while harking back to centuries-old theatrical storytelling traditions. What we fear is what we manifest. How we avoid succumbing to the things that go bump in the night is the reason for our survival.

The night-bumping thing in this case, is Count Orlok, a mysterious billionaire who arrives in a small Tasmanian town to start a winegrowing enterprise. It isn’t long before, as the publicity blurb for the production states, ‘the only thing growing faster than the vineyards is the body count’. Orlok isn’t human, isn’t nice and certainly isn’t here for altruistic motives.

Nosferatu is a contemporary exploration of the Dracula story, first coming to our collective consciousness through Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. The adventures of this most famous of bloodsuckers was taken up in 1922 by German expressionist film maker FW Murnau, giving us the long-fingernailed, shadowy, lurking creature of our nightmares.

In this new production, playwright Keziah Warner and director Bridget Balodis expand the well-known themes of this genre by creating a complex and multilayered investigation of greed, ambition, sexuality, loyalty and, ultimately, hope. The word ‘hope’ is mentioned several times in the script and it’s no coincidence. It’s the hope in the story that allows it to be simultaneously hilarious, silly, mocking, gruesome and, at times, genuinely disturbing. It’s the hope that allows us to breathe and think.

The set is simple, the lighting stark and expertly administered. Several doors across the back of the stage act as segments of the story, alleviating the need for extravagant or timely scene changes. A large table dominates, used as boardroom table, dining table and the site of various physical and psychological sexual proclivities.

A soundscape weaves through the narrative like a lessening heartbeat, a fading pulse. This is clean and clear storytelling that still has room for lighting tricks, special effects and, of course, copious amounts of stage blood. Set and costume designer Romanie Harper marries the two mediums with such efficacy that one never overwhelms the other.

The performances are generally consistent and convincing. Sophie Ross plays local doctor Kate with strength and purpose, fulfilling the ‘final girl’ trope of the horror genre as she fights to the end against the evil forces that have invaded her town. Keegan Joyce gives a hand-wringing, nerve-jangled performance as Tom, the first of our characters to be ‘influenced’ by Count Orlok with disastrous results. Max Brown and Shamita Siva play the town’s mayor (Knock) and news reporter (Ellen) respectively and, although energetic and committed, these performances lack a depth that will no doubt come from further on-stage experience.

Nosferatu, of course, is who we have come to see and judge and be horrified by, and in this role Jacob Collins-Levy is outstanding. He displays just the right combination of creepiness, charisma and chutzpah. He laughs at us and with us. He smiles, seduces, bites, murders, cajoles and entertains. It is a performance that exemplifies an understanding of nuance as well as a ribald and heightened style of delivery. He also wears a glorious swirling cape, so what’s not to like?

Read: Theatre review: Seven Sisters, Perth Festival

Nosferatu could do with some streamlining, and shave 10 minutes from the running time, but that’s a minor quibble when discussing this delicious piece of theatre. The production tells us a story in order help us to decipher life, death and all the confusing and difficult moments between.

Nosferatu, by Keziah Warner
Malthouse, Melbourne
Director: Bridget Balodis
Set and costume designer: Romanie Harpe
Lighting director: Paul Jackson
Dramaturg: Mark Pritchard
Production dramaturg: Bernadette Fam
Composer and sound designer: Kelly Ryall

Intimacy choreographer: Cessalee Smith-Stovall
Stage manager: Cecily Rabey
Assistant stage manager: Harry Dowling
Cast: Jacob Collins-Levy, Keegan Joyce, Max Brown, Shamita Siva, Sophie Ross,

Nosferatu will be performed until 5 March 2023.

Christine Davey is a writer, director and academic living on Wadawurring country.