It’s among most recognisable images from the early days of cinema: the twisted, shadowed form of vampire Nosferatu, climbing a flight of stairs. That single freeze-frame hangs in the background throughout this engrossing one-man play, symbolising how much it dominated the life of the actor who played the role. That actor was Max Schreck, and in this self-penned script, Michael Daviot brings Schreck out of the shadows – illuminating a complex career that spanned both stage and film, yet came to be forever defined by a single iconic role.
Daviot is an utterly convincing actor. I don’t mean just that he’s believable in character, although he certainly is that; I literally mean that he can tell you he’s standing in a forest, and somehow, despite the evidence of your own eyes, it seems like it’s true. There’s a mesmerising, almost hypnotic quality to his portrayal of Schreck, considerably aided by his own rather other-worldly appearance. But there’s a warmth to the portrayal as well, with an occasional ironic glance or well-judged eye-roll bridging the gap between the audience and the stage.
He also gets the accent right. I speak German, and I’m continually frustrated by how many professional actors think it’s enough to pronounce a few W’s as V’s. Daviot does nothing so crass; he has the subtleties of intonation mastered, and sounds exactly like a German man who’s learned to speak English well.
Nationality is important here, because Schreck’s life story overlaps the beginning of the Nazi era. Daviot’s script doesn’t milk that point, but it comes to the fore towards the end of the play, as Schreck – raising his voice for the first time – delivers a challenging and convincing response to those who suggest that his very presence in the country endorsed its oppressive regime. Other episodes from German history, including the hyper-inflation of the 20s and the trauma of the First World War, are delicately and neatly linked into the narrative, often drawing subtle parallels with the work Schreck is performing at the time.
Not everything’s perfect, of course. A bizarre song near the start of the play is explained later on, but it makes for a slightly off-putting opening, and a couple of further early scenes go off on tangents I still don’t quite understand. And much though I enjoyed it myself, I query the wisdom of performing Goethe’s poem Der Erlkönig, unabridged and in the original German. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a superlative, extraordinary rendition, perfectly tuned to the themes of the play, and capturing the electric terror that crackles through Goethe’s text. It’s the stand-out moment in a stand-out show… and maybe five per cent of the audience will understand it.
On the whole, though, this is an impeccably accessible play, punctuated by a few moments of introspection and a smattering of witty asides. There’s lightness in the language and humour in the staging, especially in the inspired way it evokes playwright Bertolt Brecht. Above all, it’s the story of a life: a case study in theatrical biography done well. Schreck deserves his moment in the spotlight – and without a doubt, Daviot does too.