The story of a bullied kid helped by an androgynous teenager/ancient vampire, comes to the Australian stage.
That a serial bully can ruin a person’s day, even their life, is something Marla Rubin has thought about deeply. It’s the reason the Canadian-born producer was so keen to purchase the stage rights to Let the Right One In, a 2004 Swedish novel, made into an acclaimed film by John Ajvide Lindqvist in 2008, and later the 2010 English-language remake, Let Me In.
Her own torment as a 10-year-old schoolgirl at the hands of a sadistic flirt probably prodded her along. “He was the class clown and he was really charming. And when I didn’t respond to him, he started to hunt me.” Finally, after several years and a horrific act of sexual exposure by him on a bus, she ran home, told her mother and moved schools.
The Swedish cult classic is about a mercilessly bullied boy, Oskar, who turns for help to Eli, an androgynous teenager who has moved on to his housing estate but doesn’t leave the house until dark. Eli’s entreaty to “invite me in” proves life-saving for Oskar and deadly for his abusers, as she transforms from androgynous teenager to ancient vampire dripping blood from fang and pale fingers.
The creator of several award-winning stage adaptations such as Festen (a Danish story about a tyrannical father), Rubin partnered with the National Theatre of Scotland for the first production of Let the Right One In. She chose renowned English screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) to write the stage adaptation.
The National Theatre of Scotland perform Let The Right One In. Picture: Manuel Harlan
So successful was the play — it won critic Melvyn Bragg’s 2014 South Bank award for best new play and was nominated for four New York Drama Desk awards — that it has been produced in a dozen countries. Now Rubin is headed to Perth to attend the Australian premiere, staged by Black Swan State Theatre Company.
When Review speaks to her via phone from London, where the peripatetic Rubin is based, bullying is the topic de jour. Stories of Harvey Weinstein and his serial sexual predation are flooding the media and Rubin has her own story to tell.
“It’s not your typical Weinstein story but it’s an interesting segue into why I did this show,” explains Rubin. She had avoided meeting the Hollywood film mogul for years, even though her work as a theatre producer had piqued his interest in discussing a project with her.
“He’s a complete bully, which is why I avoided meeting him for years.” Then in 2012 one of Weinstein’s female executives, a friend of Rubin, invited her along to a London reception for The King’s Speech, as part of Weinstein’s campaign to secure Oscar votes for his celebrated film.
Rubin accepted and was talking to the film’s star, actor Colin Firth, when a beautiful young French starlet came over and stood staring hard at her. “She was clearly high on drugs, very unbalanced and I felt threatened by her. She said, ‘Why do you ask so many questions?’ I said, ‘It’s because I’m really interested in people.’ ” The young woman aggressively stepped forward, at which point Rubin says Firth and another British actor cautiously took a step back.
“It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life,” she recalls. “She was glaring at me in such a wild and menacing way that I felt threatened by her behaviour — and compelled to defend myself somehow.” The belligerent questioning continued. “I had a glass of red wine in my hand. And I watched as I poured the wine on to her beautiful velvet shoes.
“Then I walked away completely shaken and left the party.”
Two days later, she met a friend for lunch. “I told her, ‘I’m a sister, a feminist, and I’ve never had a reaction like that in my life before. Who was that young woman?’ ”
“She said, ‘Oh, that was Harvey’s mistress for the weekend, I had to fly her in from Paris and at the end of the weekend Harvey was calling me in a rage saying, ‘Send her back.’ ’’ Rubin says only later did she realise the young woman may have been “acting like a trapped animal in Weinstein’s snare — and was herself terrified”.
Canadian-born producer Marla Rubin.
A child of the 1960s, Rubin says she believes in speaking truth to power. “My shows are things I do to effect social change and to entertain, not one or the other,” she says.
“This play does that, it’s about standing up to your bullies. I was also interested in portraying something I’d not seen on the stage, which is bullying from the perspective of the target, and from the perspective of an adolescent.
“This piece for me was a way of exorcising those demons and, in a purely narrative format, looking at the dynamic of bullying and the isolation of adolescents when they are in the midst of this dilemma. In the case of this story, having a supernatural ally come to one’s aid is wish fulfilment.”
She says the central character of Oskar (played in Perth by Ian Michael) is powerless and impotent, while Eli (Sophia Forrest) represents the ability to fight back. “There are never easy endings but one has to take the leap and be courageous.”
Rubin previously has worked on projects with Sydney and Melbourne theatre companies, but when Black Swan indicated a desire to stage her play it felt right, she says.
“I just hope it can resonate there — I’m looking for a well-realised show on this transgressive subject matter that will thrill the audiences of Perth.”
Ironically, Rubin’s love of the story was the reason Black Swan’s artistic director Clare Watson was thwarted in her own pursuit of stage rights a few years ago.
“I was at a youth theatre company and there were things in this story that really appealed,” says Watson. “I applied for the rights and was told: ‘They are not available.’ Now I know why, because Marla had got them.”
When Watson began programming her first season at Black Swan, she applied to Rubin’s production company and vowed to make her directing debut for the company with Let the Right One In.
Lindqvist’s novel is set in the snow-covered Swedish suburb of Blackeberg, a part of Stockholm where he grew up in the early 80s and suffered the abuse of schoolyard thugs. “He names his actual bullies in the novel — it’s a revenge story,” says Watson.
Yet Watson has subtly transplanted the story to “an Australian suburb on the edge, kind of forgotten”. And three of the eight actors in the Perth cast — Ian Michael, Clarence Ryan and Maitland Schnaars — are Aboriginal.
“Thinking about bullying in the context of our country, we thought about the cultural divide that still exists between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians,” says Watson. “We recognised it could be addressed in this work, not explicitly, but having three Nyoongar actors in the cast becomes part of the conversation. And we’ve had amazing conversations about cultural respect.”
The company also is having fun with the vampire theme, organising a screening of the Swedish film accompanied by a “Bubbles with Bite” drinks session and a horror makeup offer. Then there’s a panel discussion on the vampire-horror genre and the Swedish film’s cult appeal.
But what exactly is the enduring allure of the vampire myth? Watson insists it’s more than bloodlust. Says Watson: “I watched Lindqvist’s film alone, on a rainy evening, and was entranced by it because it’s taking the myth and using it as a coming-of-age teen love story.” It’s a theme she says she has explored often in her previous role as artistic director at Melbourne’s St Martin’s Youth Arts Centre.
“If we look at it from a young John Lindqvist’s view growing up, Eli is like his perfect friend. She’s not of this world and he feels he’s not connected to the world. So they have true connection. And he has a best friend who is fierce and deadly and can truly defend him.
“The complicated gender is great to work with, and the myth of the teenage girl who feeds on blood, who bleeds profusely, offers a feminist reading of this tale that is about a terror of menstruation.”
Sophia Forrest and Ian Michael in Let The Right One In. Picture: Robert Frith.
The ritualised life of the vampire also fascinates Rubin, a sometime student of anthropology and mythology. “There are elements that instruct us in ways that sometimes real life cannot. One feels compassion for Eli because she’s caught in a dilemma she cannot escape.”
Rubin was not enamoured by the occult romance film series Twilight, in which misfit high school student Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) enters into a dangerous romance with handsome vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). “It was sexualising and sensationalising, so it wasn’t my cup of tea.”
But she was thrilled when young people came in droves to see Let the Right One In when it played in London’s West End, and then in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Japan, South Korea and the US. “The simple format of the stage can still awaken the conversation and compel an audience — including a teenage one — to listen. At the end of the day it’s about the word.”
Watson says she is keen to attract younger theatre audiences. The Perth production unfolds inside a puzzle-shaped apartment block in which the viewer glimpses, Hitchcock-like, the unfolding of ghoulish scenes of victims hanging upside down or drowning in a pool.
Like Rubin, Watson is a big admirer of Scandinavian writers and TV series such as Borgen and The Bridge that ratchet up the urban terror of modern life. Then there’s the idea of “traumagenics”, or how trauma is transmitted between generations. “And I’ve always been interested in shifting hierarchies, where does power sit and how can you look at it differently, nudge it along,” Watson says. “I think that’s what this work does.” Rubin realises that Let the Right One Insatisfies another personal urge — a less than admirable one, she concedes — for revenge.
As a producer of plays and documentaries about people who are “the outsider, the marginalised, in need of being championed”, Rubin has come to believe that human beings sometimes need to even the score.
She’s rereading all the Greek classics, “and one is reminded how vengeful these tragedies are. There is a need for a reckoning, in an Old Testament sense. I don’t think this is very evolved of me, but I think Let the Right One In taps into a need for evening the score.
“Donald Trump speaks power to truth, not truth to power, and so does Harvey Weinstein,” Rubin adds. “Wherever truth tries to out itself, these predators try to crush it with power. Part of the beauty of all art forms engaged with the public trust is their ability to fight back.
“We’re dealing with issues that go beyond the domain of Weinstein and Trump, although these are the kings of the political and entertainment domains. We’re dealing with systemic abuse of power.”
By Victoria Laurie. First published in The Australian 4 November, 2017.