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.

Interview: Ross McGregor, Frankenstein

Arrows & Traps were last seen at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre in February with their acclaimed production of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Now they’ve turned their attention to another classic novel: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“It’s the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s original novel, so it seemed a great time to tackle the piece,” says director and writer Ross McGregor. “Frankenstein is so iconic as well, it’s ingrained in our literary and cinematic history, and there’s been over 100 different adaptations both on stage and screen. It’s such a flexible and deep piece of literature – I found the ideas that Shelley talks about in the novel to be fascinating and worthy of dramatic exploration. Plus, it’s just so much fun to do. There’s literally a scene when a monster made of dead people comes to life. You don’t get that in Alan Ayckbourn.”

Frankenstein is the eleventh show from Arrows & Traps, known for their innovative adaptations of literary classics – and it could be their most ambitious project yet. “In many ways, it has all the hallmarks of an Arrows show: the tight ensemble work, the physical pieces, the fluid staging and the excitement of seeing a classic story told in a new, and hopefully interesting, way,” says Ross. “What makes Frankenstein different from anything we’ve done before is that we’re telling three stories at once. Victor’s, The Creature’s, but also Mary Shelley’s. It’s a triple narrative all being told simultaneously, which makes for some exciting viewing.

“Also, this is the first production that I’ve actually written myself, as well as directing it, so rehearsals have been a voyage of discovery in terms of staging the piece, finding what works, what needs clarifying, and how best to tell the stories we want to tell. It’s been a fascinating and gruelling process of vision and revision. I’m slowly learning the importance of being able to kill your darlings.

“There are moments when it is as though the ghosts in my head are literally manifesting in front of me, which is very moving and humbling, and there is always a great relief when a particular bit or a specific scene is rehearsed and it ‘works’. So often what might look acceptable on paper doesn’t then work in performance, so it’s always lovely to see something that translates and makes the leap. The cast is bringing an awful lot to the roles though, and I’m constantly surprised by all the new layers they’re discovering. It’s been a joy to be involved in.”

Ross explains that in his research for the show, he became fascinated by the story of Mary Shelley: “Her world was filled with characters such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, her father William Godwin, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her sisters Jane and Fanny, Shelley’s wife Harriet – all of these people would have made a great play in their own right – but what principally struck me was the notion of all the strange parallels in her own life to Frankenstein. Now Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was nineteen, and although there were definitely things in her childhood that inspired her to write the book, her subsequent life after the novel’s publication shared many strange links to the book, almost as though she cursed herself by writing it. The more I delved into the real story around Frankenstein, the more I wanted to include it in the play.

“So yes, Mary is a main character in the show. And not just as a narrator, she has a part to play in it. She’s older now, suffering from a terminal brain tumour in fact, and is tormented by something that happened in her youth. Something that ties directly into Frankenstein. And so as we see the story of Victor and his Creature unfold, we also see Mary relive her past, with the cast playing roles in both worlds, leaping from one timeline to the other. It’s something of a rollercoaster to watch. I’m very excited about it.”

In adapting the novel, Ross encountered various challenges – one of which was sidestepping the traditional Hollywood image of Frankenstein’s monster. “Initially, I was very faithful,” he explains. “I had always seen the Creature as this lumbering, bolts in the neck, flat-headed lummox that groaned at people, but in the novel, he’s very graceful and agile. The Creature in the novel is very eloquent and possibly as smart as his creator. I wanted to try and mimic that, because I hadn’t found a version where that had ever been attempted.

“In the novel also, there’s no motivation for Victor’s need to create this monster – he just does it because he can. So I knew I wanted to humanise Victor and make him more sympathetic, more flawed, more human, more understandably motivated. So it’s been about balancing those two things. Also, the novel itself isn’t very dramatic and doesn’t lend itself easily to being dramatised. The iconic bits that you probably think of when you think of ‘Frankenstein’ are not from the novel. There’s no ‘IT’S ALIVE!’, there’s no character called Igor, there’s not even any mention of the Creature being scarred or covered in stitches or bolts. All of that is from the films.

“The novel concerns itself with ideas of nature versus nurture, of the perils of parenthood and the isolation caused by abandonment. The hubris of genius. So in adapting it, I have tried to stay true to Mary Shelley’s vision, whilst constructing something that stands on its own two feet as a piece of theatre. And from being in rehearsal, I can certainly tell you we’re making something inherently theatrical.”

The show’s cast includes a mix of Arrows veterans and new recruits: “The brilliant Christopher Tester plays Victor Frankenstein; Arrows fans may recall his recent performance as Raskolnikov in our last production Crime and Punishment, for which he was nominated for an Off West End Award for Best Male. We have the incredibly talented Cornelia Baumann returning to play Mary Shelley, after her recent turn as Olivia and Emilia in our repertory Shakespeare season of Twelfth Night and Othello last year, and we are honoured to have our resident movement director genius Will Pinchin playing the Creature, which I’m so excited about as I’ve wanted to get Will on stage in one of our shows for years. 

“We have Philip Ridout, of this year’s festival circuit hit Dogged fame, playing William Godwin, and recent Oxford School of Drama graduate Victoria Llewellyn playing Elizabeth Lavenza. I recently had the honour of directing for Fourth Monkey Theatre Company as part of their One Year Actor Training program so we’ve got three of their very talented graduates involved: Zoe Dales playing Agatha, Beatrice Vincent playing Fanny Imlay and Oliver Brassell playing Henry Clerval. It is an honour to have all these guys involved and the benefit of knowing who the cast were when the script was still under construction was that I could write it with them in mind and tailor it to them.”

With Halloween just around the corner, theatregoers in search of something a bit scary are likely to have plenty of options – so why should we book to see Frankenstein? Over to the writer: “It’s a gothic steampunk horror set in two different timelines, playing just before Halloween, in one of London’s most iconic and welcoming fringe venues, by a company that cares greatly for the source material and has spent the last three years working to hone their skills and push fringe theatre to the limit of what it can do in terms of ensemble, spectacle and excitement. Frankenstein is quite scary, quite funny, quite sad, and very very exciting. I’d definitely go, and I’m rubbish with scary things.”

Frankenstein opens at the Brockley Jack on 26th September, continuing until 21st October, followed by a brief run at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford from 2nd-4th November.

Review: Attack of the Giant Leeches at Etcetera Theatre

When you arrive for a show and get handed a mini water pistol, you know you’re in for an interesting evening. And it turns out that the opportunity to gleefully drench some actors is actually one of the least eccentric things about the Lampoons’ Attack of the Giant Leeches, a comedy horror for the Halloween season, which is very funny, extremely silly and above all quite, quite bonkers.

It’s the 1950s, and something bad is lurking in the Florida Everglades. When a local man claims to have seen a monster in the water, nobody believes him… but then people start disappearing, and game warden Steve Benton vows to track down the culprit. The show is a madcap homage to the 1959 “creature feature” movie of the same name, complete with low-budget props, rampant sexism and some very questionable accents.

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Photo credit: Mark Neal

The Lampoons describe their style as “engaging, eccentric, and visually banterous”. I’m not even sure if banterous is a real word, but it feels appropriate nonetheless. The actors are clearly having just as much fun as the audience, bickering cheerfully amongst themselves and occasionally collapsing with a fit of the giggles. The show also enjoys sending up the style it’s imitating, with scenes of clichéd melodrama, cheesy commercials for household products, out of the blue musical numbers, and – perhaps most memorable – the moment the solitary woman breaks character to launch a furious and long overdue tirade against her patronising male co-stars.

Each of the actors (Christina Baston, Adam Elliott, Josh Harvey, Oliver Malam and Sab Muthusamy) takes on a number of stereotyped roles, among them the country yokel, the henpecked husband, the seductive blonde and – of course – the hero who saves the day, albeit with a lot of help from his considerably more intelligent girlfriend, and an unnecessary amount of time gazing dramatically into the distance. It takes skill and a well-oiled team effort to produce something that seems so completely chaotic, but this cast certainly knows how to deliver – and how to get maximum laughs while they do it.

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Photo credit: Mark Neal

A word of caution: this is not a show you just sit and watch – and don’t think just because you avoided the front row that will get you off the hook (I realised this when, in my ‘safe’ second row seat, I suddenly found myself being handed a stick of dynamite made out of a Pringles can, by an expectant-looking man in a rubber dinghy). The cast throw everything into their performance, but they also feed off the audience’s reactions, and without that participation – and in some cases, severe discomfort – the show would probably fall a bit flat, so be prepared to get involved.

Don’t expect serious drama or highbrow acting from Attack of the Giant Leeches (although who would, with a title like that?), but what this show does offer is full-on entertainment with a side helping of complete mayhem. It might not give you nightmares, but it will definitely give you a surreal and hilarious night out… and who can say no to that?


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉