War of the Dungeon: Part 2

The complete Dungeon strategy guide – continued! (For interested parties, here’s Part the First.)

5. Torture: The Dungeon’s E-Ticket attraction – now more than ever in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey (as this article in the endlessly trustworthy Mail Online suggests). The kindest treatment for those unsightly bawds who mouth off about ‘Mr Grey’ is to clap them in the cage behind the torture chair. This cage, more than anything, is emblematic of the Torture show’s primary challenge: digression. The temptation to swell the show with all manner of grisly additions is immense. Why insert the hook up the backside, when you can spear the eyeball too? Why tear out the tongue, when you can mentally slap ’em round the face with it? And why let people stand about like leg-dependent idiots, when they can elsewise sit majestic in your palatial wrought iron cage? Yet nowhere in the Dungeon are the demands of time more pressing. You’re sandwiched between Judge and Turpin. If you go too slow, the audience will flood in from Judge and create an incredibly awkward clash. If you go too fast, the automated section of the Turpin show will still be going – meaning that you’re left gaping like a fish, waiting for an actor otherwise engaged. And that actor will despise you for making their life more difficult. Torture is a juicy show, a sirloin steak of a show – a king-size ham of a show, if you like – so the delight in giving as much as possible is virtually irresistible. As ever, though, these things tend to work better under constraints. It puts a cap on your generosity and prevents it spilling over into egomania. Like Judge, the Torture show has a three-part structure; the three sentences become three tortures. When the Dungeon was still a glorified wax museum, the torture theme spread throughout the entire building: a fragmented parade of gore-splashed vignettes. I particularly remember the impalement of Saint George, whose forlorn corpse now looms above the Torture chair. (Very different to the cuddly psychopath I played in John Kinsella’s Plough Plays a few months back.) In its current state, then, Torture is a microcosm of the attraction’s original design: compressed, and yet still fragmented. It’s the actor’s job to create cohesion. So whilst I find myself shaking my fist at Erik Bloodaxe’s muffled cries of ‘GET IN HERE YOU DOGS!’ (a sure harbinger of yet another group’s approach) and doing myself reprehensible vocal and physical damage (the thumbscrews have several times screwed up my thumbs), it’s mostly from the desire to extend my delight to others. It’s vital to hold on to that and not let exhaustion prevail. When I started at the Dungeon in 2008, my Torturer character was largely a reprise of my Doctor Prospero in Return to the Forbidden Planet. I still have the performance notes I drafted during that rehearsal process:

Prospero is the master actor, ever playing the part of the great villain. The zeal and zest of his evil is implicit in his every elegant gesture, twitching fingertip and raised eyebrow. He goes bow-legged in his villainy, almost stumbling as he contorts into ever more insane poses. He is like the real-life Tod Slaughter by way of Vincent Price and Lon Chaney…

Bloody hell. If I started with that proviso, I’ve no idea what my Torturer’s matured into. My Doctor Prospero was by no means restrained. On balance, the Torturer is probably my favourite of the Dungeon ghoulies. I hate the Torturer at times – he’s by far the most tiring character to play, particularly when the crowds are relentless – but he’s the blackened, beastly heart of the Dungeon. I think he’ll stay that way for some time.

6. Dick Turpin: Highwayman from Hell: I vividly remember the old Turpin show, from visiting the Dungeon as a child. Back then, it must have been quite an ambitious undertaking: not only a projection-effect Dick Turpin who spoke to guests from his cell, but, as I recall, a very impressive town square in which the hanging took place. The climax of the show was the terrifying, lightning-infused apparition of Turpin astride Black Bess – two figures that stood at the entrance to the Dungeon for a while. In my first two seasons, it was also quite different, extending over two large rooms which have since becomes the Witches playing space. Turpin’s now a more economic black box of a show. The original intention for the loading area in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion was that of a boundless limbo of mist and decay, in which the ride vehicles would briefly materialise before fading away. I get a similar vibe from the Turpin room, which represents York Debtors’ Prison (the real cells are located just across the road, in York Castle Museum). The effect isn’t immaculate, but the space does give the impression of unending darkness, which I at least find unsettling. This atmosphere has its pay-off when the lights fade out and Dick Turpin puts in an appearance – via the miracle of carefully placed surround sound speakers and a strobe-lit, twitching body. The nightmare of Turpin on a timescale is getting the damned public into the room, onto the benches, then back on their feet and out of the room. Possibly in response to the room’s forbidding appearance, everyone’s motor skills become savagely impaired, which means they fritter away endless minutes shuffling their feet, avoiding the front benches, sticking far too close together (‘four bodies to a bench!’ you cry – no one really listens), sitting on each other’s laps (a health and safety horror – the very same benches tip forward!) and generally making nuisances of themselves. At moments like this, you think along the lines of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda: this would make for a perfect Dungeon, were it not for the damned visitors! The show’s saving grace is that you’re playing Thomas Hadfield. A real historical figure – the only one you impersonate in the Dungeon – about which nothing pleasant can be said. As a confederate of Turpin, he’s basically a nasty shit, so you can be far ruder to the audience than usual. You can be loud – provided it’s damagingly unpredictable rather than histrionic (as in Judge and Torture). Physically threatening, too – I usually forget what a very tall chap I am (comes from being hunched), but I delight in looming over an audience on Turpin and treating them just as I bloody well please. And that’s the key to the show. The letting go; the not caring. When I first started Turpin, I couldn’t get a handle on the character. I was trying too hard, which meant the effort was making itself shown in all the wrong places. It became one of my patented ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m doing, but I’m also bonkers, so I’ll scream and flail hysterically, and isn’t it all just a little impressive?’ performances. Ugly self-consciousness. Which didn’t make sense. To live a life of real crime, heinous crime, you can’t give a flying toss what anyone thinks of you. The question is irrelevant; baser instincts dominate. It’s definitely a quality I’ve tried to bring to Bill Sikes in Sikes & Nancy, who I consider Hadfield’s spiritual cousin. Too little care is a dangerous thing in theatre (I dislike performers who feel entitled to an audience’s interest), but if adjusted to an end, it can most certainly deliver. The unabashedly nasty characterisation is also wonderful for setting up the last jump scare. Whilst the lights are still out, you sprint like mad to the front of the room and position yourself so you’re right in someone’s face (I tend to go for those who whisper or giggle in the wrong places). It’s the best jump scare in the Dungeon. And more than a bit nasty.

7. Execution: Traitors of York: The Dungeon’s new show for 2012; a vast improvement on 2011’s abysmal (and actorless) Gladiators of York. Execution has lent a pleasing symmetry to the second half of the Dungeon: following their sentencing and torture, the audience moves through three orchestrated deaths. With hanging and burning already taken, Execution turns to beheading. Chopping blocks and giant axes! The iconic Halifax gibbet! Severed heads on spikes! Truth be told, the hoary medievalisms that crop up in such Universal horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Raven and Tower of London. Sometimes the secret to producing something really good is to do something thoroughly clichéd. Somehow it’s that bit more surprising – and welcome. Unlike Gladiators, which rooted itself in the most tenuous of historical conjectures, Execution is quintessentially York, taking place as it does at Micklegate Bar – still in existence, and still where the monarch begs admission to the city. (Very amusing watching the Queen do so earlier this year.) What makes Execution stand out is the character. It’s like nothing else the Dungeon’s ever seen: a shambling dervish of performance anarchy; a properly mud-spattered classical Fool; a free-wheeling, head-lopping motor-mouth. The Executioner’s Assistant is insane, no doubt… but not particularly terrifying. Rather, he’s buoyant, he’s Falstaffian, he’s – in the best tradition of Will Seaward – so loud that you can barely think. I would stop short of saying he’s loveable. During rehearsals for Die Fledermaus, I was endlessly requested to ‘be more loveable’. In return, I endlessly argued how senseless that is as a detached abstraction. Execution has allowed me to deliver the kind of Frosch that Die Fledermaus wouldn’t. I’ve taken great delight in realizing this specialised black comedy: bellowing ‘HELLO!’ in distorted cadences as the audience enters the room; using the broomstick as crowd control; letting rip in a cornucopia of whooping, flailing, gibbering and pivoting. The best fun in the world. The Executioner’s Assistant is the flip-side of Thomas Hadfield: once again, inhibition is key, but here in pursuit of festive merriment. This character has proven key to mastering audiences on Execution. If people are onboard with the character’s sort-of charisma and willing to laugh along, then the show is a quick and easy one. If not, it’s a soul-crushing, energy-sapping slog – in which seemingly nothing can lift the resentment. One of the best lessons of the Dungeon is never to try to make an audience like you. As in life, so in theatre: the harder you try to be liked, the more unlikable you become. Patsy Rodenburg’s teachings lean in the same direction, suggesting the actor must strive always to tell the truth. I don’t know where the elevated ideal of ‘truth’ slots into the Dungeon equation (or indeed most forms of theatre that I vibrate to), but where being true to yourself is concerned, Execution insists on it.

8. Witches: Burned Alive: Witches is by far the most tech-dependent of the actor-led shows. So much so that I half-anticipate the day when the actor is usurped by a sophisticated robot. Witches was the new show for 2010, which made it very exciting at the time. The special effects are uneven, but on the whole impressive; most particularly the show’s crowning illusion, in which a hapless audience member – via the miracle of red lighting, steam and a well-concealed turntable – is reduced to a smouldering corpse. The actor doesn’t have a character to play, so much as a series of vivid ‘moments’ – a sneer here, a spit-take there, some jabbings of the needle to even out the action. Whether you’re interesting in fishing for anything deeper is entirely up to you. Personally, I think you’d be mad not to – repeating a show across so many weeks requires some further well of interest. (Those in doubt should witness the legendary Bryan Heeley’s conversion of the show into a Queen rock concert; not for nothing is this man the walking personification of the Dungeonesque.) For me, the show’s most beguiling oddity is the absence of any witches. In every other show, the bogeyman puts in an appearance – whether through the actor or some technical paraphernalia (as with Guy Fawkes, Erik Bloodaxe and Dick Turpin). Here you have only your victim from the audience, a poor (and often unwilling) bogeywoman. Yet your character, the grotesquely named Witch-Pricker, is but a whisker away from a fairytale witch. It’s all there: the black hat with the wide brim; the swirling black cape; the hideous, throat-rending cackling; even the needle with which you test for witches, bizarrely reminiscent of a magic wand (not helped by the fact that the pricker really was a stripped-down, repainted Harry Potter wand for the longest time). I always got the same feeling from Vincent Price’s performance as Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General: those who persecute witches come to resemble their prey. It’s a bit of a cheat, of course, owing considerably more to Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz than the Malleus Maleficarum. Speaking for myself, I’d love to play the Wicked Witch of the West on stage someday. For my money, Hamilton’s Witch is one of the all-time great cinematic performances, one that thrilled me to no end as a child and still fascinates me in early onset adulthood. Nature has anyway cursed me with Hamilton’s hatchet-face profile. If Witches can serve as my unofficial Oz audition, then that’s enough to put me in a good mind-frame. Where controlling the public’s concerned, the machines have that one over on me. I simply try not to get caught in the curtains.

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, The York Dungeon

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