Yesterday I returned to The York Dungeon! First time I’ve been back in almost a year – save my visit on Christmas Eve, which was quite the best idea I had that holiday. Usually, I find being reborn to decay a fairly emotional experience, but this time exhaustion prevailed; I’ve been recovering from a mysterious sore throat, which has only just started to fade. Accordingly, I rounded out my eight hours of darkness with relaxing walks into and out of York, a restorative shower, and a blissful kip on the sofa, the edu-fun-tional delights of QI buzzing away in the background. Today, I’ve mostly been sittin’ and figurin’ – wondering how Dracula, that sprawling haunted castle of a book, might become a worthwhile play. As I hinted in this interview, it’s a text with the potential for a monodrama in the Hunchback mould.
Before I tumble back into Stoker’s epically silly story, I’ll collect some thoughts from yesterday. A day at the Dungeon is less a coherent narrative than a series of vivid ‘moments’. This time, I’ll be focusing on that which, like me, is new to the Dungeon:
New corpse in Plague: The corpse – a recent casualty of the Black Death – is the centrepiece of the first half of the show. As the plague doctor’s assistant, your job is to root around inside, pluck forth the innards, and now and then elucidate the symptoms of plague. I’m not convinced that the new chap is better than last year’s model. He’s certainly different. The detail is now astounding. Around the mouth are individual flecks of stubble – which feel, unsettlingly enough, like stubble. We also have eyebrows, eyelashes, a good head of hair – and, best/worst of all, a fine fur covering the chest and arms. The sort of detail that an audience really isn’t likely to notice, but will alternately please and traumatise me whenever I set to rubbing and stroking my friend. On the downside, the hands and feet strike me as less realistic than previously (people inevitably touch the extremities to work out if the corpse is an actor; it’s essential that they convince). The old body was also filled with water. This made for a fantastically disgusting squelch as you rummaged about inside, allowing you to fleck your audience with fresh corpse-juice on the sly. I suspect the new fellow has been secured against the damage that water did his predecessor: the organs are now enclosed in a rigid (and dry) wooden casing. In result, the figure now warrants a more voluptuous approach. Rather than the demented splashings of a rat in sewage, there must be prolonged and sensuous communion with intestine, heart and lungs. The new corpse is also, regrettably, a eunuch. The previous figure was handsomely endowed, and proved a special favourite with hen parties.
New darkness in Plague: Various lights have been angled or extinguished to make this first chamber as dark as possible. A shame in one sense, given that the surgery boasts some of the Dungeon’s most detailed set dressings. But it’s definitely more unsettling now. The new darkness is more than visual; the script been tweaked to give the actor a sharper edge. This transition is going to be a challenge for my Plague character, William, who is very much Kenneth William(s) in voice and manner. But then, Williams was often the most frightening thing about the films he made, high camp and grotesque horror wandering in hand with the sublime… In line with the tonal shift, there is a new call for silence. Last year, the actor would introduce himself to the public by ringing a bell, bursting through some doors and screaming ‘BRING OUT YER DEAD! BRING OUT YER DEAD!’ I felt there was merit in this approach; in beginning the tour with a jolt, the faint of heart could slink away without spoiling the experience for others. The subtle version is certainly more unnerving, but I’m not convinced that it prepares audiences for how insane the Dungeon will eventually become. And, needless to say, when I slithered towards a school party yesterday – in silence – the air was rent with piercing shrieks for a good thirty seconds. Some things simply can’t be changed. In the demented hurly-burly of crowd control and nervous exhaustion that is the Dungeon Summer, subtlety has no place.
New rug in Ghosts: The frame for Ghosts is the ancient Golden Fleece in York – allegedly the most haunted pub in the most haunted city in England. (Swap ‘haunted’ for ‘superstitious’ as you see fit.) We now have a suitably pubbish rug covering the wooden floor, through which William Brown’s ghost makes his presence known. My first thought was ‘how splendid – now when children vomit, we can simply roll up their leavings and continue undisturbed’. Closer inspection reveals that the rug has been nailed down. No doubt it will cause the stench to linger. On a less odorous note, I’m relieved to find Ghosts still in place. It’s by far the best bit of theatre in the Dungeon. There are shows that offer more visceral entertainments (Judge and Torture especially), but none that are quite so disturbing. The standard Dungeon show is episodic. For example, both Judge and Torture adopt a three-part structure of audience interaction: the judge metes out three sentences, while the torturer samples three of his wrought-iron trinkets. In Ghosts, meanwhile, every effort is made to build a narrative into the five-minute experience. The core of the show is a literal storytelling, as the innkeeper recounts the hanging of William Brown. However, it receives an enormous lift from the enfolding and enabling mechanics of that storytelling. Similarly, the special effects that comprise the climax to the show are fairly modest – but they gain in power for creating a progressive encounter with the supernatural. The audience is first subjected to purely visual stimuli – first, a number of blackouts (contingent on vision deprived); second, the manipulation of physical objects (a lantern moves, a tankard crashes to the ground). From here, we progress to a heightened visual manifestation (a transparent shade appears to visitors, through the magic of Pepper’s ghost). Finally, we have what can only be described as a bolt of wind, which shoots from behind a curtain and provides tactile, physical experiencing. Neatly structured for cumulative impact, and a fine complement to the actor’s intimidation of the audience.
New Labyrinth of the Lost: Two years ago, I just loved this show. In the person of a dead Roman Centurion, I’d bleat utter drivel at an audience before clapping them without warning in a darkened room. Last year, however, the show had been destroyed – the toilets belonging to the nightclub above the Dungeon flooded, thus rendering the Labyrinth toxic and unusable. This year’s replacement is excellent. The premise of Labyrinth is historically dubious: the claim that a Roman legion became lost in a series of tunnels hidden beneath York Minster. Convenient lies aside, the new Labyrinth certainly looks the part. Where once there were mirrors ensconced in plastic are now detailed faux-marble carvings, pillars and busts. This chamber forms the gateway to the mirror maze. The maze itself is saturated with brilliant scare effects – a skeleton rattling for freedom against its chains; a deafening clatter of iron from above. With gags like these, the Dungeon pays homage to its ghost train roots – the pneumatic irritation of the pop-up ghost sustained in eclectic new forms. As a child, I hated jump scares of every kind. Nowadays, I find them one of the most entertaining scare tactics, and certainly the most instantly gratifying. There is also a novel chance to become the pop-up ghost. The new maze design contains an alcove fronted with two-way glass, which means that the actor can sneak in and unexpectedly illumine himself, thus terrifying those within. Two-way glass is another illusion cribbed from the Disney Haunted Mansion, which used it for the legendary hitchhiking ghost effect (prior to the ghastly CGI updates).
New Execution show: Dungeoning depends on repetition, so a new feature is always a strange phenomenon. As I mentioned earlier, Dungeon shows tend towards the episodic. Execution is as fragmented as they come: as the executioner’s dogsbody, you bait the crowd, trash the south for a bit, slap someone in the pillory, show off the severed heads on Micklegate Bar (Thomas Mowbray and Richard Le Scrope, traitors each to Henry IV), try out the Halifax gibbet, and finally fail to chop off a fresh head. This fragmentation doesn’t make Execution a bad show; it just necessitates that the character becomes as malleable as possible, the liquid substance that will draw these elements into cohesion. I had a few run-throughs after closing time with Mark Watson, Performance Supervisor and fellow Dungeon actor. Bafflingly quickly, I find myself adopting a persona similar to Frosch, a character that I played in Die Fledermaus in February. Frosch was a character that I came to despise. I wanted something dark and subversive – the needle that bursts that innocuously fluffy champagne bubble of an opera – while everyone else wanted the flat, the functional and the insipidly vivacious. What we wound up with was polished (the measliest arbiter of quality in opera), but essentially quite dull; an unmotivated and (to me, at least) largely unfunny explosion of shoutings and grimacings. I maintain that the only non-singing character in an opera should remain operatic – in conception and realization. Not suffer reduction to an unadventurous music hall skit. So Execution might also be a chance for rehabilitation, allowing me to test what dark potential Frosch really had. It’s curious how characters you’ve played in ‘serious’ dramas come back to you in the Dungeon, jostling for new life. That stirring moment at which theatre becomes a ghostly echo-chamber. I’ll go public with Execution in the next few days. The technical challenge of multiple button-presses, all of which require precise timing and physical grace, will no doubt prove the more pressing (ha!) concern.
Next time, I’ll aim to report some gems of public behaviour. The Dungeon is nothing without its victims. And, as much as I love ’em, they tend to be the weirdest people on earth…