Sunday, August 14, 2016

Nosferatu's Shadow (Sweet Grassmarket, Edinburgh Fringe)

Is it not better to be remembered for just one thing rather than nothing at all? Max Schreck doesn't think so. He'd rather be completely forgotten, lost in the mists of time, than be remembered for the one role which has endured almost an entire century.

Schreck will forever be associated with his most indelible role, that of Count Orlok in the 1922 German Expressionist silent horror, Nosferatu. Even if you've never seen the film (and let's face it, you have to have a pretty specialist interest to sit and watch a 90-minute silent black and white movie these days), you'll know the part Schreck played from the clips, stills and spoofs that pepper popular culture. The bald, pointy-eared, spike-toothed, claw-fingered ghoulish silhouette which climbs a flight of stairs and terrified generations to come.

But Max Schreck was more, much more than a silver screen vampire. He was a stage actor of phenomenal renown in Germany, a performer of admirable and admired talent who conquered comedy and tragedy, romance and horror, cabaret and recital. He worked with Bertolt Brecht and Max Reinhardt, and despite his forbidding countenance, was actually a very cultured, thoughtful and nature-loving individual who preferred the forest to the city and was devoted to his beloved wife of 26 years.

Actor/ writer Michael Daviot, born and bred in Edinburgh, performs his one man show in character as Schreck, speaking to the audience from beyond the grave, looking back over his life and resenting the shadow Nosferatu has cast over it. Although Schreck was known for his skill at playing ghoulish, monstrous, otherworldly roles - a master of the unheimlich - it was not something he particularly enjoyed. He wanted to be seen as a master of his art, able to play anything and anyone, and to all intents and purposes, he did. He never made leading man (he was far from handsome), but he did gain the respect, especially on the stage.

But an actor's stage work is rarely what defines them, even today. Theatre is ephemeral, it melts away with memories, and Schreck's greatest work is lost forever, just like Garrick's and Olivier's. Even the work we know him for the most, that dreaded Count Orlok, narrowly escaped being lost forever after most of the film prints were purposefully destroyed following a copyright infringement case brought by Bram Stoker's widow.

Michael Daviot as
Max Schreck
Daviot, who has more than a passing resemblance to his subject, brings gravitas and poise to Schreck, and great humility and perspicacity. He brings out Schreck's love of nature and the natural, his gentleness and humanity, all things lost on fans of silent horror films. He masters the German lilt with a voice of chocolate and cream, and peppers the biographical narrative with renditions of some of Schreck's other work, such as Moliere's The Miser, the father in Sudermann's Magda, or Goethe's poem Erlkonig. Daviot is pitch and word perfect in every case, an obvious student and fanatic of the works, and brings alive the recitals, even when speaking in fluent German. It's a lovely touch that each audience member gets an English translation of Erlkonig to take away.

But peeking through every now and then, piercing the biographical monologue and theatrical renditions, is Count Orlok, with Daviot assuming that infamous stance of the ghoul on the stairs and invoking some of the eerie intertitles from Nosferatu (We Will Go No Further. Here Begins the Land of Shadows...).

Nosferatu's Shadow is a well-researched and sensitively performed paean to a man who is largely misunderstood today, a man who gave us one of the greatest lasting images of popular culture but who would really rather fade away into Chronos's dark embrace. More than a show for fans of silent film or horror, this is for anybody with an interest in German history, European film-making and how the passage of time affects our legacy.

Meanwhile, back in Transylvania...

The stats
Written and performed by: Michael Daviot
Directed by: Robert Williamson
Performed at Grassmarket 4, Sweet Grassmarket, Edinburgh, August 4th to 28th 2016. Performance reviewed: August 13th 2016

Nosferatu's Shadow website (retrieved Aug 14 2016)
Max Schreck on Wikipedia (retrieved Aug 14 2016)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Did you see the show too? I'd love to hear your feedback!