Blue-blood gets a taste for your blood

Chulachak Chakrabongse, more commonly known as 'Hugo', makes stage debut in Dracula: Blood Is Life

When Chulachak Chakrabongse speaks, he rarely looks your way. He could be drifting or struck by sheer boredom, but you are never offended. You're busy wondering what to make of his presence: as teen star that he once was, as a father of two, as great-great-grandson of King Rama V, as 34-year-old blues rock star "Hugo", who was with Jay-Z's Roc Nation label. Or now, in a rather unexpected turn of career path, as Count Dracula in a stage play production of Bram Stoker's classic.

"I thought, why not?" said Chulachak, who is, as always, in bell-bottomed jeans and a hat. This was after he met the show producer Paul Ewing about a year ago. "One day he sent me a message about doing Dracula. I thought it would be good to try something new, and it seems interesting."

Directed by Joe Harmston, Ewing Entertainment Worldwide's debut stageshow in Thailand titled Dracula: Blood Is Life begins on Friday at Siam Pic-Ganesha Theatre at Siam Square. Special guest actor William Belchambers, known for Royal Shakespeare Company's 2015 Love's Labour's Lost, will star as Dracula from Friday to Sunday before Chulachak takes over from Feb 18 until March 6. 

The 1897 Gothic horror novel by the Irish author tells a story about Count Dracula's move from Transylvania to England to find new blood and spread the curse of immortality, and later a battle between the caped bloodsucker and a group of hunters led by Abraham Van Helsing. Stoker's Dracula is Chulachak's favourite book and was the first of the genre he read as a kid. Iconic and dangerous, Dracula is something which has always appealed to Chulachak and to whom he can relate to, "an anti-hero, being a man out of time, out of place".

"Especially when you like rock and roll," said Chulachak. "To be a musician is considered a nocturnal person, along with bartenders, bar girls, gangsters, police, and everything that exists at night. The nocturnal aspect of it, when you play in a band, you end up doing everything at night. Compared to the other characters, like the men in the book, who are all professionals, sensible, decent, intelligent people."

It may not be the first analogy you think of, a musician and an aristocratic vampire, but perhaps this can't be helped it if you have been in the industry as long as Chulachak has. First starting out as the frontman of Thai band Siplor, he first gained international recognition when Beyoncé bought off his song, Disappear, to be featured in her album, I Am ... Sasha Fierce. In 2010, he signed with Jay-Z's label Roc Nation.

Even though the album with Roc Nation, Old Tyme Religion, was a success -- his bluegrass cover of Jay-Z's 99 Problems or the single Bread And Butter which was featured on HBO's hit series Entourage -- he parted with the label before producing his second album Deep In The Long Grass.

'Hugo' Chulachak Chakrabongse as Dracula.

"With Deep In The Long Grass, we were still working together," said Hugo. "The more time passed and it became less likely that I was gonna go back to live in New York. I was having a second child and they [Roc Nation] started signing athletes and basketballs star and dealing with tens of millions of dollars. There was no room for a singer who's 34 years old, married with two kids and doesn't live in America."

Chulachak said that the label just lost focus with his album, that they liked it but they didn't know what to do with it, and he decided that it's not the right place for a medium-sized artist.

"I need to be more independent," said Chulachak. "I need more freedom of movement to do things quickly and on a smaller scale. I understand that they are a big company but I don't give a shi*t about anyone else when it comes to my music. I'm not gonna sit around and wait. I'm not 17."

The production of Deep In The Long Grass ended up with Thai label Lullaby Entertainment and Chulachak said it has been a success. "It's sold out, and we have to reprint the CDs," said Chulachak. "Last year, we played almost every weekend and the two shows at Aksara Theatre were sold out. It couldn't have gone better."   

Those gigs may have cemented his confidence as a performer, yet becoming Dracula is something different because it's Chulachak's first role in a play. Many would remember that he's done a few soap operas in his younger days, but Chulachak said it has next to nothing in common with doing a stage play.

"The best thing about Thai soap opera is the crew, the people you meet, but the actual creative process of it, to me, is non-existent. You are delivering something, a very specific job which is to keep people company in the evening while they are doing whatever they are doing."

This production of Dracula: Blood Is Life is based on the critically-acclaimed adaptation of the novel by Liz Lochhead, which producer Paul Ewing said was beautiful to read, with the language very poetic yet not too florid. Young American-Thai singer Myra Molloy takes the role of Lucy, a young woman who becomes victim of Count Dracula. Director Joe Harmston added that the erotic tensions at the heart of the battle between good and evil will be illuminated by the set design, lighting and illusion effects.  

"I would be crazy if I'm not nervous," said Chulachak, but added that he's confident because of the people he has around him and Dracula doesn't say as much as other characters. Being on stage all his life has also been a great help. "I'm comfortable being on stage, it's my main job playing music. So I don't really have any fear of audiences necessarily."

Being born blue-blooded, Chulachak said he could in some ways relate to Stoker's character. Chulachak's great-grandfather, Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanadh, was King Rama V's 40th son who married to a Russian woman in a whirlwind love story. His grandfather, Prince Chula Chakrabongse, was born in 1907 and had no right to the line of succession due to his half-foreign status. Still the Chakrabongses -- and its handsome residence by the river opposite Wat Pho -- is one of the best-recognised aristocratic families in Thailand.

"I'm not saying that it gives me a special affinity or whatever," said Chulachak. "But there's no denying that when you grow up in a house that I grew up in, there's a link to distant history. I have always been very aware of having a link to older times."  

Last year, Bangkok saw a few productions by companies from abroad, some which are based here, but never of such huge scale such as this one. Ewing thought the production would work with audience here both because Thais love horror and that it's just a universal theme.

When asked about this revival of vampirism in the past years, whether it's hit teenage vampire films or series, Chulachak said it has to do with something which resonates deeper than that.

"it's not so much about people being into vampires but into what the stories represent," Chulachak. "Which is fear of death, of sex, and of others. Fear and fascination with not being in control. I think a lot of people, although they probably won't admit it, think that sex is something they are both fascinated with and terrified by its implication.

Chulachak said that the rehearsal now has taken up as many as six days a week. When asked about his next album, Chulachak said that the record will be in Thai but he can't really say yet because he's got only a few songs.

Asked what he does on the only day of the week that he doesn't have to rehearse for the play, he said: "Nothing."

"I stay with my kids," said Chulachak. "I don't go anywhere. I just read. I listen to really boring lectures on YouTube, long and boring ones like lectures on foreign policy, lectures about books, lectures about other lectures."​

- Dracula: Blood Is Life plays Friday to Sunday (starring William Belchambers) and from Feb 18 to Mar 6 on Tue-Sun at Siam Pic-Ganesha Theatre, Siam Square One, at 7.30pm (2pm matinee on Sat and Sun).
- Tickets range from 1,200 to 3,800 baht and a private eight-seater box costs 35,000 baht. Tickets can be purchased at the theatre and from Thai Ticket Major or

'Hugo' Chulachak Chakrabongse.

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