As a longtime fan of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and never forgetting the spell under which I fell on seeing Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979) for the first time, together with the fact that I am a somewhat dilettantish follower of contemporary Polish dramaturgy, the anticipated appeal of Grzegorz Jarzyna’s Nosferatu was greater than the apparent inaccessibility of Nosferatu in Polish with French surtitles playing in the Odeon satellite theatre on the péripherique. And indeed it was worth every bit of the effort to get there and sit through it.
|Renfield in his cage|
The performance was spellbinding and in so many ways reminds of the relationship between the cinema and theatre as it thrived in Germany in the 1920s when Murnau made his silent film. Even though his Nosferatu is closer to Bram Stoker’s original with the inclusion of the secondary characters, Jarzyna makes multiple references to the narrative silent cinema of Murnau’s time. Which is to say, the performance was not necessarily cinematic, but it was in productive relationship with previous visual examples of Stoker’s book. Perhaps the most obvious and striking reference is in the use of the lighting to create multiple scenes on a single stage with a single set. As day turns into night, the steel cold light by which the vampire comes to life drenches the stage entrances and exits. And when daylight returns, the diffuse lighting that provides the stage for scientific and philosophical conversations softly illuminates the Harker’s living room and van Helsing’s office. The morgue, the cemetery, and the perspex cage at the front right of the stage that holds Renfield as he writhes in madness, eating his insects and nurturing his connection to the mysterious force, are likewise created as much by the sculpting of light as they are by the placement of the furniture (the same used in all other locations) and the positioning of the characters around it. This dramatic use of the lighting to command the mise-en-scène was also underscored by the fades to black at the end of each brief scene, as if we were indeed watching a silent film. Simultaneously, the scenes mirrored the epistolary form of Bram Stoker's original, but without that mode of address.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Jarzyna’s production, that which made it somewhat trancelike to watch, was the predominance of silence, movement without speech, a mysterious space carved in the air by sound effects that were often no more than hinted at. While the characters talked fast and animatedly when they spoke, there were many pauses and spaces in the conversation. When the women entered their illicit communication with the vampire, whole scenes passed without a sound being uttered. Into these spaces, even when physically absent, the vampire entered and overtook the house which was the stage carved in harsh blue light. And when his spell drove the characters wild, he breathed in the air between people in a room, stopping their conversations, or distending them so that everything adjusted to his presence. Again, Nosferatu himself was nowhere physically present. And so, while Murnau used shadows and editing techniques to convince us of Nosferatu’s curse (or seduction), Jarzyna uses light and a score that itself could have accompanied a silent film. When the vampire eventually arrives to dinner, we hear menacing winds blow through the trees, rats teeming the streets of the town outside, the threat of illness and death made visible through sound. The spell, the irrational, and the heightened arousal of Nosferatu crawl through the air, becoming visualized only when dry ice consumes the stage and envelops Lucy and Mina as they are charmed, impregnated, and violated by his apparent irresistible seduction.
Like the Herzog/Kinski vampire who, in one of the most poignant moments of postwar European cinema, reminds us that “the absence of love is the most abject pain” Jarzyna’s Nosferatu searches throughout the play, for love. Really, in the end, this is all he wants. And though he comes close — he has a similar kind of repulsive attraction to Kinski’s Nosferatu, even for us — his disease, his unsociable habits and undead-ness make it impossible. But our own desire for and identification with him makes his eventual disintegration in the daylight, anything but a happy ending.
Ultimately, Jarzyna demonstrates that Bram Stoker’s novel is as relevant to our contemporary world as it was to that of late-Victorian England. His staging of the story raises (as did Stoker's book at the turn of the 1900s) the most confrontational social issues, but within what for today is a non-confrontational narrative. The book, and Jarzyna’s staging of it extend between issues such as the power of female sexuality, through rape, adultery, AIDS, the danger of our innermost sexual and spiritual desires to make the spell of Nosferatu a challenging pleasure.
All Images Courtesy of Théâtre de l'Odéon