Director John Tiffany tells Susan Mansfield why the delicate art of bloodletting treads a fine line on stage
IT’S the first proper warm day of spring and Govan’s Film City is the coldest place in Glasgow. The National Theatre of Scotland team rehearsing in the old town hall shiver in their coats between scenes. Director John Tiffany has his hoodie pulled up over his ears. “I wonder,” he says, hugging his arms around him. “I’m doing a vampire story and the temperature in the room drops 15 degrees? Mmmm.”
The team are rehearsing for the stage premiere of Swedish vampire story, Let The Right One In, based on the novel by John Alvide Lindqvist and Tomas Alfredson’s cult film, which tells the story of a bullied teenage boy and his friendship with a centuries-old teenage vampire. The cold is appropriate for the wintry landscape of the story, a snowy forest on the edge of a town; the stage is set with tall birch trunks and (surprisingly effective) snow made from recycled, shredded plastic bags.
Tiffany, who left the National Theatre of Scotland last year to work as a freelance director, is back to direct this production along with his long-term collaborator Steven Hoggett, with whom he made Black Watch and The Bacchae. The musical they made together, Once, is running on both the West End and Broadway, where it picked up a clutch of Tony Awards.
Last year’s NTS production of Macbeth, starring Alan Cumming, has opened on Broadway to a rapturous reception, and Tiffany’s production of The Glass Menagerie, made with American Repertory Theatre, is due to open there this year, giving him a Broadway hat-trick. With West End producers Marla Rubin and Bill Kenwright involved in Let The Right One In, it’s clear that there are similar hopes invested here.
Tiffany shrugs off the question. “I’ve never got any idea about the commercial potential of anything, which I’m quite glad about really. I think the work finds its audience, sometimes it’s that [West End] audience. I like the journey that shows go on to the West End and Broadway because it feels like they’ve earned their place there. But it doesn’t change the goalposts, it’s really about trying to do the best work possible.”
And that means Film City, in the freezing cold, putting his cast through its paces. I arrive at an emotional moment when teenage vampire Eli (Rebecca Benson) is facing the death of Hakan (Ewan Stewart), who has been her friend and protector, and who has killed on her behalf. Tiffany excitedly pulls out his phone to show me a photograph of the prosthetic scars which will be applied to Stewart’s face, and for a minute gives in to boyish excitement: “We have special effects in this show – arterial spray from necks in the first two minutes.”
A vampire-horror-romance such as Let The Right One In is more usually the territory of film, where special effects can be more easily managed, but Tiffany is enjoying the challenge of bringing them to theatre with the help of Brooklyn-based special effects designer Jeremy Chernick. “It’s not big CGI expensive special effects, it’s just very creative. You’ve got to be careful about how much you do and how you deal with it, so that it feels that it’s earned its place. If you get too many it turns into a Quentin Tarantino bloodfest, but used very selectively, it feels quite shocking on stage – in a good way. While Let The Right One In is a horror film, it’s actually more about how Oskar and Eli negotiate the burgeoning relationship between them, which is a love story in many ways, but one of them happens to be a vampire. This isn’t really a things-that-go-bump-in-the-night story, it feels very naturalised, quite domestic in a way.”
Nevertheless, there will be blood. We move on to a lesson in stage combat, in the crucial scene where Oskar (18-year-old Martin Quinn, who is making his professional debut in the show) stands up to the bullies and lashes out at the vindictive Jonny (Stuart Ryan) with a stick. Ryan has to practise holding a small pouch of water (it will be blood in the finished performance) next to his ear and bursting it when he is hit. “Remember, blood will be denser, more viscose,” warns Tiffany, as another pouch of water spurts across the stage. They run it again in slow motion, and again, until the timing is perfect. Ryan grins: “Now I just need to remember to scream at the same time.”
One performer who clearly doesn’t need a lesson in stage combat is Deacon Blue’s Lorraine McIntosh, who plays Oskar’s alcoholic mother. The next scene on the schedule is the confrontation which happens at home after Oskar has struck Jonny. He accuses her of being drunk, she slaps him, and it’s a humdinger. Quinn reels slightly and for a moment no one is very sure if he’s acting. “Good slap Lorraine!” laughs Tiffany.
Let The Right One In provided a fresh, contemporary take on the vampire story. While Twilight fever gripped teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic, Lindqvist rejected the usual vampire cliches and wrote a story of two vulnerable teenagers falling in love in a suburb of Stockholm in the 1980s. Tiffany has kept the decade (“because it’s quite nice to be in a world without mobile phones or computers”) and moved the action to Dundee.
“When I was first approached three years ago [by producer Marla Rubin] I could see that it was a really good idea, and I thought it would work brilliantly in Scotland because all the connections between Scotland and Scandinavia are so ripe. Because it feels like the community this story takes place in is not a main city, and I’d worked in Dundee before at the Rep, I thought of Dundee.”
Tiffany says he was excited by what Steven Hoggett, a specialist in movement and physical theatre, could bring to the vampire story. As he did with the cast of Black Watch, Hoggett leads the cast in an hour-long workout in the rehearsal room every day and, while no one wants to give too much away, the demands are particularly high on Benson, 24, who is playing Eli.
“I completely panicked when I read the script,” she says. “I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I’ve got to get to the gym’. I went to classes, gave up alcohol and sugar, it was hard but I was really happy I did it. Being a vampire, being superhuman, I just felt like I had to up my game.”
She says the demands of the show have taken her out of her comfort zone. “When I’m Eli I can do things Becky would be freaking out about, climbing up trees without being scared of heights, or being in a small box in the dark when you’re a bit claustrophobic. I’m quite surprised at what I can achieve.”
Paisley-born Quinn, who was put up for the part by Scottish Youth Theatre, says he was surprised to be cast ahead of older, more experienced performers, but is clearly having the time of his life: “It’s been nerve-wracking for me because it’s totally different from anything I’ve done before, but everyone is really nice and supportive, and I’ve learned so much already.” It’s not hard to see why his baby-faced charm makes him ideal for the guileless Oscar, just as tiny, brown-eyed Benson is perfect for the centuries-old Eli.
“Technically, she’s old, but I soon discovered she’s not old in her head,” Benson says. “She doesn’t carry experiences with her in the way you might imagine someone 200 years old would do. Oskar awakens those parts of herself that she’s always going to have, the sense of being a young teenager, what it is that makes her happy.”
Both Benson and Quinn are fans of Peter Pan, and see Let The Right One In as a kind of dark parallel. “Peter Pan is one of my favourite books,” says Benson. “I’ve always found it really dark, there’s a lot of pain in it. When he wrote it JM Barrie was dealing with the death of a friend’s child, the boy who never grew up. That’s the thing with Eli, there’s a complete and utter pain at not being able to grow old, be an adult and have children of her own. There’s a sense that, because she never ages, she is completely isolated from everyone around her. What Oskar gives her is relief from the isolation.” «
Let The Right One In runs at Dundee Rep, 5-29 June. www.nationaltheatrescotland.com