There must be some strange alchemy to John Ajvide Lindqvist’s cold-skinned, warm-blooded vampire novel. Transformed into a truly masterful Swedish film in 2008, that even when remade by Hammer Studios two years later still retained so much of its queasy, mesmeric power. And this stage version, adapted by Jack Thorne for the National Theatre of Scotland, may be its most impressive resurrection yet. It hangs in the Jerwood Downstairs like a winter fog, broken here and there by terrible, beautiful things.
Thorne is a canny choice for retelling what is at base a coming of age story, albeit one swerved by supernatural intervention and corrupted by far more worldly horrors. Resetting the Swedish tale in some remote Scottish community is a brilliant move from Thorne, retaining the isolated otherworldliness that director Tomas Alfredson captured so perfectly in the first film version.
Thorne shifts the balance of the story slightly, favouring scenes of systemic bullying and cruelty that place 12-year old Oskar at the bottom of an unscalable social tree, as well as the family pressures which leave him almost dangerously volatile and vulnerable. Oskar’s aggressors are seen within the context of cycles of abuse, the bullied side-kick of the bully, himself bullied by an older brother. Oskar is a link in a chain that’s being stretched to breaking point when young vampires Eli walks into his life, made clear by her entrance as Oskar and a silent chorus of other schoolboys practise desperate self-defence with bread knives pilfered from family kitchens. Eli is a symbol of rebellion and escape, teaching Oskar how to taunt a local sweetshop owner and urging him to fight back, but the consequences of drifting into her feral world become increasingly clear. It could be argued that Thorne pulls away from some of the more explicit psychosexual content of Lindqvist’s novel, but by relying on suggestion to a greater extent than either film version, questions are left to hang threateningly in the wintry air.
Martin Quinn proves himself an incredible find in his stage debut as Oskar, immediately likeable but frighteningly weak, his timing and physicality just couldn’t be better. He’s matched by a thoroughly disturbing performance by Rebecca Benson as Eli, who perfects the balance between agelessness and adolescence, shifting from pre-teen casualness to animalistic ferocity. Most chilling of all is Ewan Stewart’s turn as Eli’s protector Hakan, haunting the woods with his gas cylinder and tarpaulin, foreshadowing a more terrible chain of violence that Oskar is sliding unknowingly towards.
Thorne and director John Tiffany understand that Lindqvist’s story must function as a gothic horror as well as teenage tragedy, and spare no opportunity to spill blood or invoke real fear. The gorgeous woodland set by Christine Jones is constantly played against sudden, graphic bloodshed, and Jeremy Chernick gets a special nod for his convincing and ambitious special effects. Music by Icelandic artist Ólafur Arnalds is similarly indispensible: an electronic score of frozen beats and loops that moves at a post-rock pace, building synergistically with Tiffany’s careful direction.
The stage-craft is immaculate and filled with surprises, while the script’s occasional missteps into banality are quickly forgotten, and Thorne more often finds the perfect handful of words to dress the situations which are told so eloquently by Tiffany’s stage pictures and Quinn and Benson’s superb performances. It’s told in bloodier terms and painted in bolder colours than most plays that find their way to the Royal Court, but it’s one of the best things that’s been there all year. Lindqvist’s masterpiece of modern horror has never looked better.