Elyse Ashton portrays The Countess, arguably the single most mysterious character in the entire story. LeFanu created a very unsettling atmosphere, in part by not answering certain questions. One of these remains the identity of the woman who claims to be Carmilla’s mother.
Tell us about yourself. Who is Elyse Ashton?
As an actress, I lean towards the classics and the bizarre. Some of my fondest theatrical experiences have been working on productions with the Grand Guignolers and Classical Theater Lab.Very different approaches and aesthetics! I’m an old goth and this girl loves to dance! It’s fun to work those elements into performances Theatrical life chose me, and every time I get discouraged and want to make a change, I am furiously swatted around by fate. My college degree was in French literature, and my studies led me to seek out and to love more literature written in my native tongue! I am a voracious reader and researcher. Languages, poetry and books fascinate me. As a woman… I like to remain a bit of a mystery!
Were you familiar with Carmilla before becoming involved in this project?
I am a a big fan of Lefanu’s writings and that’s what drew me to audition for this project. Lefanu’s home in Merrion square is one of the first places I visited in Dublin. Eighteenth and nineteenth century literature is my escapism, my happy place. I adore faithful film versions–and sometimes even the bad versions— of these books as well. In the 80’s I saw a crazy version of Uncle Silas starring Peter O’Toole on Masterpiece Theatre and knew I must search out and read Lefanu’s books. I never thought that Carmilla was done properly on screen, so I have developed very high hopes for this stage production after reading the excellent script.
So what do you think about vampires? Any favorites?
Oh…yes! Since the notion of vampires evolved into the more romantic, well mannered, rake and less the decaying, dirty, stinky versions of the myth over the last two centuries, there have been some lovely vampire characters that send me swooning. I have to go with Tim Power’s The Stress of Her Regard as one of my favorite vampire stories, because he includes some of my beloved romantic poets and even weaves in Lamia by John Keats. Baudelaire’s The Revenant is among the poems I recite before every stage performance.
How are you approaching your role as The Countess?
There isn’t much in the original text, so I am letting my imagination run amok. I like to do a very thorough background. She must have qualities that Carmilla values: loyalty, seductive charm and the noblesse which allows her to interact credibly with the sort of people with whom Carmilla wishes to make her temporary home. Perhaps she was an aristocrat without the money to continue her way of life. The setting of the play, between the wars, makes that a logical back story. She must have been left quite on her own, possibly losing her family in the Great War. She also has to be a creditable actress.
In the original story, The Countess’ identity remains a total unknown. She claims to be Carmilla’s mother. But what is she? A vampire? A ghost? Some kind of witch allied with vampires? Do you have a theory?
I haven’t made all my choices concerning The Countess yet. She isn’t Carmilla’s mother. Carmilla’s mother is a distant memory and would have held some sort of sway over her daughter, which The Countess lacks. there is a line in the story about how the Countess looks at Carmilla with an emotion that was not affection. No maternal bond. If she were her Carmilla’s mother, they could both insinuate themselves into households and work their spell. That would be a totally different story! There is an element fear, I believe, for the Countess in her dealings with Carmilla. The Countess is dependent upon Carmilla’s favor. I have not decided yet on the elements of her relationship with the supernatural. Her powers do not equal Carmilla’s, and I believe there has to be some hope of gain or benefit attached to the Countess. Of course, one meeting with the director and all these theories could go right out the window!
When the audiences leave the theater, how do you hope they’ll be changed?
I hope they’ll be lured into reading Lefanu and other writers of the period, especially after the unsettling yet glorious dreams which Carmilla is sure to inspire and then come back and see the show again.
Finally, is there a question I didn’t ask you wish I did? If so, what would the answer be?
Were you born in the wrong time? On the wrong continent? Yes. Absolutely! But I’m sure the ideal gorgeous European centuries of my imagination bear little resemblance to the reality. I treasure my modern human rights, medicine, plumbing and technology…but I still like flounce around in frou-frou dresses and tiaras when given the opportunity.