Review: Nosferatu, TR Warszawa

In 2010, contemporary Polish theatre company TR Warszawa brought to the Barbican Centre their version of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, a gripping, emotional piece that had me rooted in my seat. This year they bring Nosferatu, FW Murnau’s 1922 German expressionist film based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula (although for copyright reasons, the Count is named Nosferatu). Much as the vampire connects his body to his victim’s, Director Grzegorz Jarzyna creates a monstrous fusing of Stoker’s Dracula and Murnau’s Nosferatu. Rather than rejuvenating the creature, though, this fusing will leave fans of Nosferatu and Dracula feeling something has been lost.

Jarzyna’s Nosferatu is a slow, methodical piece of theatre. Episodic and split with repeated blackouts, there is a rough and flickering cinematic quality to the work. Magdalena Maciejewska’s design sees the stage looking somewhat stretched, like a strangely-proportioned landscape painting or a picture stuck in widescreen on a television. The stage is devoid of structure, with different rooms subtly indicated by different colours, and as in any vampire story, mirrors and windows with billowing curtains are dotted across the walls. We feel that we are watching not so much a coherent story as a series of tableaux, or a camera shutter capturing a long exposure. The sparse narrative is loosely threaded through the piece and at times suspended for what feels like minutes at a time. Figures become distorted, lights blur and the audience are either transfixed or bored senseless. Thankfully, for me it was the former, but given the slow applause and remarks from audiences afterwards, for the majority it didn’t translate well.

As with TR Warszawa’s previous pieces, the creativity of Nosferatu and the company’s commitment to the contemporary portrayal of existing works is commendable. It takes a certain daring and skill to be able to translate Nosferatu, seen as one of the leading German expressionist films of its time, into a successful stage production. As a well known story, are certain expectations from the audience: vampires, blood sucking, and spine-tingling scenes with virgin girls on beds in the dead of night. In Jarzyna’s interpretation, Lucy’s transformation into a vampire seems secondary to the effect Nosferatu has on the other characters. One of the stronger narrative threads is that of Van Helsing’s desperation to prove his theory of the living dead – a need that ultimately overcomes his chance of destroying Nosferatu.

There are a number of strong performances. The presence of German actor Wolfgang Michael, who plays Nosferatu, is more grounded than the piece itself. Jan Frycz as Van Helsing is also transformative in his journey of character, adding a real weight to the piece. There’s not a lot to say about Sandra Korzeniak’s Lucy, who seems to exist purely to tempt the men around her, but this is perhaps more due to Jarzyna’s direction than any failing on Korzeniak’s part.

Overall, the rhyhmn of Nosferatu seemed to reflect the endless time that Nosferatu endures as one of the living dead. Whilst this is an interesting parallel, the lack of narrative thread and subtitles that struggled to keep up the action made the 110-minute production feel far longer. Despite this, I never found the production dull – but, although I felt the concept triumphed, in practice it just wasn’t enough to fully engage the audience.

Originally published on A Younger Theatre.