At odds with its basking height-of- summer premiere, the National Theatre of Scotland’s stage adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s cult supernatural coming-of-age novel – later adapted for the cinema in its native Sweden and the US – brings the eerie chill of a northern winter wilderness into the theatre.
John Tiffany, the award-winning director of Once and Black Watch and the NTS’s outgoing associate director, has created a taut physical hymn to isolation and otherness that feasts on the cold distance between people in isolated communities.
Even as the audience take their seats, the nine-strong cast flit across the stage one by one, slowly at first, and then falling through the towering silver birch trees of Christine Jones’s wonderfully sparse set, glancing behind them for sight of an unseen menace in the dark. As in his previous collaborations with Tiffany, associate director Steven Hoggett’s choreography is understated yet hypnotic, a defining feature of the play’s strong visual identity.
At its heart this is a love story between Oskar and Eli, an awkward, bullied young boy and a reclusive, distant teenage girl who proves to be an ageless vampire. Her need for blood is sustained by her elderly companion Hakan, who waylays strangers in the woods, gassing them and slitting their throats before bleeding them dry like hanging pigs. Most of the adults here are corrupted by tragedy and spoiled promise, including Hakan with his weird, desperate lust for Eli, and Oskar’s separated, alcoholic parents (Lorraine M McIntosh and Paul Thomas Hickey, both wonderful).
Rising playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne has created a script that is faithful to the original while streamlining certain incidents and softening some of the darker edges. This is no soft-soap for Twilight fans though, and the by-now-customary metaphor of supernatural occurrences coinciding with awakening from puberty is drawn with confidence by Martin Quinn as Oskar, child-like and on the edge of overcoming a need for protection, and Rebecca Benson’s Eli, constantly sad but tentatively thrilled by the thought of true companionship.
The combination of Olafur Arnalds’ sparse soundtrack and some wildly inventive set-pieces (Eli’s uninvited, blood-drenched entry to a house; a bravura swimming-pool scene complete with swimming pool) add to a tightly controlled and satisfying experience.
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