Banish any thoughts of Dracula. The Vlad of this show is a genuine historical figure; a prince of Wallachia, in modern-day Romania, whose reputation for extreme cruelty earned him notoriety both at home and abroad. A purposefully exaggerated, gothic production, this play seeks to use dark humour and grotesque imagery to capture the true horror of his rule.
The story begins with an image of two of Vlad’s victims, impaled through the back – as it’s said he liked to do – and left to die on sharpened stakes. One of them’s Romanian while the other’s a Turk, setting the scene for the racial and political struggle which forms the backdrop to the script. But the duo don’t die; they regenerate continually, a reference perhaps to an endless cycle of violence that continues even to the present day.
Before long the Impaler himself arrives, played with relish by a commanding Jack Klaff. This is a calm, controlled, truly psychopathic figure, who prays for the strength to forgive himself for the atrocities committed in his name. All three of the cast deliver convincing performances, albeit ones which tend occasionally to stereotype; Anna-Maria Nabirye is particularly impressive as Vlad’s assistant and confidant, a loyal companion against whom he inevitably turns.
Yet strong performances count for nothing if the script doesn’t make sense. The story of Vlad The Impaler starts with promise, but soon becomes bogged down in historical specifics – the geo-politics of fifteenth-century Europe, and the background to Vlad’s three periods in power. This unfamiliar setting makes it hard to come to terms with the heavy, philosophising writing, which assumes far too many leaps of comprehension from its audience. After a while, it just becomes too hard to concentrate, in the face of a plot which really doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Things became clearer at a post-show discussion, which I attended downstairs in the Rialto’s bar. The intent, it seems, is to present a blank canvas: a template for tyranny, onto which you can project your own choice of story from history or the present day. But if that’s the plan, why choose a script rooted so firmly and specifically in fifteenth-century Romania? Part of the problem may be that the play dates from 1989, and was originally written as a satirical response to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime; penned at a very specific time, and for an audience familiar with Romanian history, it’s hardly surprising that the text hasn’t travelled well.
This feels, I’m afraid, like a work developed in an echo chamber – which started perhaps with clear points of reference, but evolved into something only its creators truly understand. The post-show chat did explain a lot, but a successful play should stand on its own. Vlad The Impaler isn’t beyond salvation but it needs a much sharper focus on exactly what it’s trying to convey.