Stage director John Tiffany opened a bar for the audience on the set of Once, made Laura emerge from a piece of furniture in The Glass Menagerie, and has now turned Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse into a snowy forest—complete with real trees—for his latest creation: an adaptation of the Swedish vampire novel and film Let the Right One In.
“I’m incapable really, in a good way because I’m a theater director, of realism,” he tells EW. “It couldn’t interest me less, the idea of putting a living room on stage. I just think, what’s the point of walking into a theater to see a living room? A sofa in a forest? Now you’re talking.”
The forest, which encompasses the entire stage, was one of the first elements Tiffany envisioned for his adaptation. “I love the idea of a forest,” he said. “It’s inherently theatrical, it’s very closely connected with fairy tales, particularly all Northern European fairy tales, Grimms’ tales, etc. It’s always the place where—well, Into the Woods has just come out, hasn’t it?”
For a story that concerns immortality, it’s appropriate that Let the Right One In has had many lives: John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel, a 2008 Swedish film, which Lindqvist wrote, a 2010 American remake called Let Me In, and now a play produced by the National Theatre of Scotland that previously ran at the Dundee Rep Theatre and two venues in London. All tell the same story of a young, bullied boy, Oskar (Cristian Ortega at St. Ann’s), who falls in love with his next door neighbor—a young girl, Eli (Rebecca Benson), who isn’t really that young. She’s a vampire who lives with Hakan (Cliff Burnett), an elderly man who kills for her so she can eat.
Those familiar with the work may wonder how some of it will translate to the stage. While Let the Right One In is ultimately most concerned with the relationship between its two main characters, there is also bloodletting—and the violent, climactic scene takes place in a swimming pool.
Tiffany relished the opportunity to figure out how to portray these moments. During the second act, for example, a jungle gym set piece revolves to reveal a narrow tank, which is then filled up with water.
“They are fantastic things to solve,” he said. “It’s what I love about theater. In film, if you’ve got to do a scene in a swimming pool, you do a scene in a swimming pool. If you’ve got to blow up a car, you blow up a car. In theater, you can’t do that, and therefore you have the opportunity to engage the audience’s imagination in a way that’s rich. We do obviously have a huge volume of water on stage, and someone is below it. But it’s the audience who creates the swimming pool.” Tiffany says that he can always tell where Let the Right One In fans, a.k.a. The Infected, are sitting because of how they react to this moment.
Because Tiffany and his team wanted their production to use horror sparingly, some moments from the film did not make the transition. In the play, for instance, a woman does not go up in flames in a hospital bed. That’s not to say it’s without its own shocks—Tiffany simply uses a “less is more” approach.
“In terms of horror convention, I thought, I do want to have one moment where the audience does jump. They seem to enjoy it really,” he said. “People seem to love that. But also, let’s have that towards the end, where people think we’re not doing that.”
Let the Right One In doesn’t rely on stagecraft alone. Tiffany was also focused on the human aspects of the story, including finding actors that could handle its complicated emotional and sexual relationships. Tiffany had Rebecca Benson in mind because she had worked with National Theatre of Scotland on previous productions. Benson has won raves for her performance—EW‘s Clark Collis wrote that her “depiction of Eli as part monster, part innocent wildling, and part believable object of desire is simply killer. Tiffany worked with his frequent collaborator Steven Hoggett, the play’s associate director/movement, to find the “vocabulary” for Benson’s vampire.
Hoggett and Tiffany convey the sadness and isolation of these characters through wordless movement. Eli swings through the jungle gym, part creature, part gymnast. When Oskar stabs at a tree, practicing for an encounter with his tormentors, the ensemble joins him in a rhythmic dance. “What I find very moving about troubled lonely people, and teenagers in this case, [is] that often you find ways for them to express where they are and what they’re feeling other than articulate words or dialogue,” Tiffany said.
Because ultimately, for Tiffany, that’s what Let the Right One In is really about. The whole undead thing? That’s “secondary to the love story. I think it’s a play about two troubled lonely teenagers who find solace in each other, and one of them happens to be a vampire.”
Let the Right One In runs through March 8 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.