Interview: Cornelia Baumann and Beatrice Vincent, Dracula

Their last production met with widespread acclaim, five star reviews and an Offie award nomination for Best Production. And now with Halloween fast approaching, Arrows & Traps have something suitably scary planned – a chilling new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written and directed by Ross McGregor.

“It’s definitely not a show for the faint-hearted!” warns Beatrice Vincent, who plays Mina. “I think we cover a lot of classic horror bases – there are a few jump scares in there, as well as what feels like gallons of blood – but ultimately it’s a play about the darker side of humanity, and things the characters don’t want to admit they want.”

“A lot of people, once they find out that we’re currently working on Dracula, assume that it is a spoof and ask if it’s funny,” adds Cornelia Baumann, who’ll be appearing in her tenth Arrows production as Renfield. “It definitely isn’t a spoof. While there are certainly some jokes in the play, we are aiming to create a real story that should be scary because of what the characters go through.

“There’s definitely an Arrows feel to the show in terms of quick overlapping scenes, swift changes and interwoven timelines. After the success of the real story of the White Rose, Dracula is very different and much more focused on entertainment, aiming to thrill and be eerie and scary to serve fans of the original and the genre.”

The show opens next week at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, where Arrows & Traps were recently announced as the official associate company. “Ross will never compromise on the scale of the story he wants to tell, and the result feels almost cinematic,” says Beatrice. “The great thing about the Jack as a venue is that it’s big enough to tell a story like this, but it’s still very intimate, which means that the smaller moments aren’t lost, and of course the audience are closer to the action!”

Over the last few years, the Arrows have built a formidable reputation with their adaptations of literary classics, from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky. Following the success of Frankenstein last year, they’re returning to horror with their take on Stoker’s novel. “Ross has made some decisions that are unique to this version and hopefully will make it exciting and bring out certain elements of the familiar story as well as create a very specific feel,” says Cornelia. “We don’t want to give everything away – you have to come and watch it – but some changes are obvious. For example, Renfield, the character that I’m playing, has been turned into a woman.

“Apart from following the Arrows’ ethos to create more exciting roles for women, this change creates some interesting new dynamics, but also gives some different insights into the story, the themes and the characters. Dracula usually preys on women, so it makes sense that Renfield perhaps originally was going to be turned into a vampire as well, but then Dracula abandons her. She completely succumbs to his powers and is a contrast to the other women in the play, particularly Mina.”

There’s also a significant – and welcome – change in the characters of Mina and Lucy: “As iconic as the novel is, it does contain some really insidious ideas about gender and what makes a ‘good’ woman, which led the original Mina and Lucy – as well as many of their stage and screen counterparts – to be a lot less fleshed out than the male characters in the novel,” Beatrice explains. “There’s a tendency to portray them as the angel and the whore, both of whom are victims that require saving by Van Helsing and their respective love interests, but Ross was very keen to distance his adaptation from those tropes, and what he’s ended up writing is a female-led piece.

“I’m incredibly excited to be playing Mina; she’s a real joy and a challenge to play. I’ve read the book and watched a few film adaptations, but Ross’s Mina is so different from previous ones that I actually found the experience very freeing. She’s referred to in the book and in Ross’s adaptation as ‘one of the brightest’ lights in the world, but the story we’re telling depends on bringing the darkness out of her as well, so finding that balance has been key for me.”

For Cornelia, playing the “zoophagous maniac” Renfield, an inmate at the lunatic asylum overseen by Dr John Seward, is an equally exciting challenge. “There’s so much freedom and scope in playing this kind of character. I think more than usual the physicality of the character was a way in for me. The connection to animals is very apparent, so from the beginning we were talking about how much Renfield’s physicality is affected by the flies and the spiders and the cats etc. But there is also the general physicality of someone who has been in an asylum for a while and who has been put into straitjackets and through various treatments. I worked with our movement director Will Pinchin on finding some of those elements, which was very helpful.”

Both Cornelia and Beatrice appeared in the Arrows’ last production, The White Rose, which told the true story of anti-Nazi political activist Sophie Scholl – and both list it among their highlights with the company. “It was so rewarding to see the company and Ross get so much recognition for all the hard work that has led to that production,” says Cornelia. “Finding out about the Best Production Offie nomination was very special and one of my favourite backstage memories.

“Personally, it is difficult to pick highlights as I have been very lucky to play lots of exciting characters with A&T, but I would have to say that playing Lady Macbeth in 2016 and Mary Shelley in last year’s Frankenstein were probably my favourites. Lady Macbeth is obviously any actress’ dream but I think I particularly liked exploring the relationship between her and Macbeth, and finding the humanity and trauma behind the horrible things that they do. Similarly I loved finding out about Mary Shelley’s incredible life and it was an honour to portray her.

“Saying that, I am having an absolute blast playing Renfield in rehearsals… so I think that will definitely be added to my highlights, if not top the other two.”

Beatrice also has special memories of The White Rose. “There was just something about that show. I think we as a company were all very aware of the importance of the story we were telling, and we never stopped being moved by the bravery of the people we were playing every night.

Three Sisters would also have to go up there, as it was a completely different experience to any I’ve had in theatre before. I was pretty nervous when Ross asked me to assistant direct, but I found the process really fascinating, and although there were moments during rehearsals when I was more stressed than I’ve ever been as an actor, watching from the lighting box on opening night made it all worthwhile – I think I cried a little bit!

“Although we’re still in the midst of rehearsals for Dracula, there’s already been so much laughter and fun in this production. I think we’re all enjoying playing stuff that we wouldn’t normally get to do, as well as having gritty emotional conflicts to sink our teeth into – pun absolutely intended.”

Dracula brings together a cast of familiar Arrows faces, all of whom have appeared in previous productions with the repertory theatre company: “Rep theatre is simply the best way to work,” says Cornelia. “It is so nice to enter a rehearsal room from the first day and be comfortable and ready to explore, take risks and have fun. It cuts through all the awkwardness of having to prove yourself to the director or even other actors. You can hit the ground running. It is about working together and creating the best you possibly can. Ross knows how we work and how he can get the most out of us. Similarly we know his style and vision and there is a shorthand to get to the end result quicker. We have so many references from previous plays that it is very easy to be on the same page.

“For any play you have to be very open and vulnerable to get to the core of the characters and the story. It is easier when you’ve worked with people before. There is more trust there. This is particularly true for playing roles outside of your comfort zone, and of course intimate scenes or in fighting and movement where you are very reliant on your fellow cast members.”

“It’s great to be able to find new dynamics within the group for each show as well,” adds Beatrice. “Lucy (Ioannou) and Chris (Tester) for example, are worlds away from Sophie and Mohr as Lucy and Dracula! It never gets boring, even though it’s a similar cast each time – this is actually my first time doing significant scenes with Chris, even though it’s our third show together. Every show has an incredibly different atmosphere, and it’s so lovely to get to share all of it with an amazing group of people.”

Beatrice joined the company last year, making her first appearance as Mary Shelley’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, in Frankenstein. “I feel incredibly spoiled,” she says. “Frankenstein was my first professional job, and I got to give an emotional death speech while wearing a gorgeous dress, which is the dream, honestly.

“But in all seriousness I’ve learnt so much this year; as someone who is still fresh out of drama school I never would have dreamed that I’d get to play such a range of complex and interesting female characters at this point in my career. And on top of that, I’ve been able to play them against actors who really force me to raise my game, in productions I am truly proud to be a part of. We’re all very dedicated to the work we do – Ross puts his heart and soul into every production, and as actors we all want to support him in that, and give our all as well.”

Cornelia was first cast in 2015 as Baptista in Taming of the Shrew, and has been a regular cast member ever since: “Honestly I can’t put into words how much I have enjoyed working with Ross and the company. It has been a real blessing and I am very grateful to have been part of so many wonderful productions and work with so many lovely, creative and talented people. Ross always picks exciting material and it has been great to see the company grow and find its style and identity.

“And as an actor I think I would never have learned as much as I have over the last three years working on these productions. It has been an honour to be recast and have a director trust you to explore different roles. It is a real chance to be stretched and be put out of your comfort zone. Renfield is certainly a very different role to what I have done before.

“But most of all it feels a bit like a family and a home. I am always happiest when working on an A&T production.”

Book now – if you dare – for Dracula at the Brockley Jack from 9th-27th October.