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Yesterday I travelled all the way down to London Town to see a play - or, more precisely an immersive theatre experience - in the company of Andrew Hickey, [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya and [twitter.com profile] karohemd. While my book and film reviews are both backed up to the tune of at least a year each, which is incredibly frustrating, no such self-imposed tedium applies here, so for once I can have the job of writing about something I have experienced fresh from the delights of the thing itself. Hooray!

So basically The Soulless Ones is the latest venture from the new(ish)ly revived Hammer company, and consists of a play about vampires which takes place across multiple rooms in a mid-Victorian music hall. Opening and closing scenes book-end the story, and are played out to the full audience in the main music-hall space, but for most of the evening different actors play out their own story-lines in an extensive series of parallel scenes, all happening simultaneously in different parts of the building, and moving around from one to the other. It is up to the audience to follow the actors according to personal preference, or simply wander around the building at will, meaning that each individual audience member will see and experience different things depending on where they went.

Given this expectation, of course, the story is deliberately constructed to ensure that no one scene (apart perhaps from the opening and closing ones) is utterly crucial to the production. So the experience is more about seeing the different characters unfold than about a plot in the traditional sense; and indeed about exploring the richly-dressed settings and soaking in the atmospheric sounds and smells. It's also important to understand the difference between immersive and interactive theatre in this context: this was the former, rather than the latter, meaning that the audience occupied the same spaces as the actors but were 'invisible' to them and instructed at the start to take it all in silently. No-one watching was going to find themselves a victim of the vampires, and nor were we to try to speak to them or join in on the story.

There is various documentation of the play around the web, of course. The official production page is here, and I also found useful reviews from Den of Geek, The Guardian and The Telegraph. I've used those, along with my own experience and what my friends reported having seen after we came out, to compile the following overview of the story, characters and settings as I experienced them. I'll also be sharing this with said friends, and would very much love them, and anyone else who has seen it, to comment with anything extra that I didn't catch (I know there were some characters I barely saw all evening), or correct anything I've misremembered or misunderstood (hey, there were cocktails...). Obviously, it will contain spoilers, so I have used cut-tags with a view to both that and length.


The opening scene

Nathaniel Blythe has invited us all to the Music Hall to witness a demonstration which will prove to us that supernatural beings really do exist. He has already published such claims in a newspaper. He has invited some special guests whom he calls forth out of the audience – Remy St. Clair, a poet, [???] Loveday, a medium, and Solomon Cresswell, a sceptical scientist who rubbished Blythe's claims in an adjacent article in the same newspaper.

Blythe performs a ceremony involving chalking a five-pointed star on the table, and placing an incense stick, patera of water, tin of salt(?), feather and bell at the five points. This opens the veil, revealing the supernatural beings who inhabit the house.

We are wearing black cloaks which will keep us safe from and invisible to the Soulless Ones. Blythe invites us to explore the building, and the main characters disperse in different directions.


The characters and scenarios which unfolded from there

Nathaniel Blythe (human) – wears a black late-Victorian frock coat and striped trousers. Greying hair brushed back from his forehead and a pointed beard. Appears to be in his late 50s or early 60s. Carries a very beaten-up Victorian doctor's bag. Transpires to have deliberately brought the other three humans introduced at the beginning into the house to hand them over as sacrifices to Carmilla, who needs them for her ritual. He thinks he will be transformed into a vampire himself and given immortality in return for this, but it is more likely the vampires will make him into their next ‘Dimi’. He has been to Africa and witnessed Darwinism in action through the predatory behaviour of lions. He believes that vampires are the superior beings, that their strength and power means that it is right for them to prosper, and that he wants that power for himself.

Remy St. Clair (human) – this part was read by a stand-in for the performance we attended, although he did pretty well and only half-needed his script. Fair, tousled hair and a beard. Fairly scruffy / bohemian clothes. Appears in his twenties. Mara has been appearing to him in his dreams, so that she knows his poetry, even though he has never revealed it to anyone else, and is able to tell him better than he can himself what the next lines should be. He is captivated by her. She feeds him a love potion. He is tortured by the twins, breaking his mind. He is fed upon by Laura? Or Elodie? He is led, half-broken into the hall at the end for the final sacrifice scene.

[???] Loveday (human) – I'm sure we were told her first name in the opening scene, but I had forgotten it by the end of the evening, and only her surname is listed on the official production page. Wears a green Edwardian-looking A-line maxi skirt, a wide red sash belt and a white blouse with English lace sections. Brown, slightly curly longish hair and a head-dress consisting of square black and white enamelled pieces across her forehead and pink flowery bits either side. Probably in her twenties. Has an Irish accent, but does different voices when she is channelling spirits. She is forced to perform a séance at the central table with Blythe and Cresswell on either side and Mara making up the circle. She does not want to do it, and tries to leave, but is prevented by Gorgo. Once she submits, though, first Nathaniel's and then Solomon’s dead wives speak through her. She also speaks a language we cannot understand, but which Mara recognises with fear as the language of Abalon (sp?). We begin to realise that Solomon desperately wants to be reunited with his wife, and if anything rubbished Blythe’s claims in the newspaper not because he believed them to be nonsense, but because he desperately wanted them to be true. Later, in a bedroom upstairs, Solomon grabs Loveday’s arms and his wife comes through to speak to him again.

Solomon Cresswell (human) – clean-shaved, fair hair brushed back, probably in his fifties. Wears a grey three-pieced suit. Appears sceptical about all things supernatural at the start, but turns out to be desperate to reunite with his dead wife. We’re never quite sure how or why she died, but she talks (through Loveday) about how Solomon promised to save her and failed. Once Solomon realises that the vampires are real and witnesses them feasting on human blood (Dimi's), he is horrified at the suffering they inflict, and confronts Blythe with this.

Mara (vampire) – wears a mid-Victorian black lace-sleeved blouse and full-length skirt with a black waist-cincher with brown edging. Reddish hair in a bun with a Livia-style nodens at the front. Clearly quite an old vampire with psychic powers of her own. She offers ritual to their ancestors early on in the graveyard, and ritually cleanses a cowering Gorgo. From Loveday’s revelations at the séance, she comes to believe that Carmilla’s ritual will not grant them the power to walk in the sunshine, but will instead bring danger from Abalon.

Gorgo (vampire) – entirely bald (shaved head), wearing a monk's cowl and carrying a string of ivory-coloured beads. Says he was once a man of the church. Now seems to be plagued with fears of uncleanliness, and to operate mainly as the heavy / servant to the other vampires. He does things like push people around, drag out corpses and sweep the stage in the main hall.

Carmilla (vampire) – wears a scarlet costume which looks a bit like Elizabeth I's most extravagant outfits, including a high collar, beaded head-dress and massive beaded neck-piece. Is the last of the line of the Karnsteins, referring to things that happened back in 'Carpathia'. Walks around carrying ritualistic-looking vials and containers a lot. Speaks of being unable to go outside because the hunters are always looking for them. She wants to conduct a ritual to Etherea, goddess of the sun, which she believes will allow them all to walk in the sunlight. For this, she needs a dreamer (Remy St Clair, the poet), an oracle (Loveday, the seer), a willing victim (Solomon Cresswell, who wants to re-join his wife) and one of their own kind (for which she chooses Elodie).

Cassian (vampire) – wears a maroon Venetian-looking Renaissance outfit with breeches and is played by a black actor, so that the overall effect is quite Othello-esque. Never really picked up anything of his back-story, but he is clearly a quite high-status vampire within the group. He complains that he is tired of the taste of Dimi’s blood, and wants to be able to get out and feast on other humans. He does most of the killing at the end for Carmilla's ritual.

Billy the Keys (vampire) – like Cassian, he wears a broadly Renaissance-looking outfit, complete with a cap, and is played by a black actor. He is primarily a minstrel. Played the lute in the bar while Cassian taunted Loveday. Played 'Champagne Charlie' while Cassian and Gorgo fed on Dimi, tied to a chair on the main stage.

Elodie (vampire) – wears a corset and long white pleated skirt open at the front over white tight leggings with heeled ankle boots. Fair hair piled into a puffy up-do. Looks in her twenties. She is a new vampire, who peers around corners into other character's scenes, and is chosen for Carmilla’s ritual at the end.

Laura (vampire) – barely saw her! Also a young-looking vampire with messy, curly hair, a puffy skirt and heeled boots. Probably meant to look a bit deranged? She may have feasted on Remy St. Clair.

Aubrey and Ambrose (vampires, 'the twins') – eighteenth-century dandies with colourful frock-coats covered in frogging, cravats, breeches, white-painted faces and bright rouge on their cheeks. They look in their twenties and both have dark hair. They torture Remy St. Clair, and generally like to look on, making louche or cynical comments about whatever is happening.

Dimi (human, aka Charles) – thin, fair-haired, looks in his late twenties. Wearing torn, bedraggled pale shirt and long-johns with a scarf draped round his neck, all increasingly stained with his own blood as the evening goes on. A human who once raised the veil like Blythe. Since then, he has been kept by the vampires as a source of food, never aging. He explains to Blythe that he is actually older than him, but did once go to school as a human boy, and that his real name was Charles. Like Blythe, he believed that he would be given immortality, but after five years he realised that he would not. He now basically just wants to die in order to be free of his horrible existence, and recognises that Blythe has been brought into the house by the vampires to become his replacement. The vampires clearly see him as entirely expendable. They tie him to a chair on the main stage while he pleads piteously for them to stop, and then Cassian and Gorgo feed on him. Gorgo gorges himself a bit too much, and has to be told by the others to stop, or there will be no blood left the next night.


The various settings

The main music hall, with stage, seating and two galleries. IRL, this is clearly a rare surviving example of typical 19th-century music hall with most of its original fixtures and fittings, and as such an amazing space. For the purposes of The Soulless Ones, it has a table in the middle of the ground floor, and a sort of altar with vessels on it on the stage. The opening and closing scenes both took place in here, as well as quite a lot of the other action – e.g. the séance, vampires feeding on Remy St. Clair.

The graveyard. In the basement. The floor is 'soil' (probably rubber tyre-shreddings). The ceiling is supported by pillars, draped with foliage. There are grave markers with angels and griffins, a water-spout with a little semi-circular pool below it, and a herm topped with a pointy-eared Satyr head and blood splashed across the front. There are things like candles and jugs on various of the graves and around the semi-circular pool. Here, Mara ritually cleansed Gorgo early on. Later, Blythe confronted Dimi and learnt something of his past.

The boudoir. Also in the basement. The walls and ceilings are draped with fabrics, and there are screens, divans and animal-skins all around the edges, so that it feels like an Arabic chieftain's tent. There are tables with decanters, glasses and hookah pipes. Here, Mara awaits St. Clair, feeds him a potion which she has spoken incantations over, and leads him to believe she has a special interest in him and his poetry.

The outside courtyard. Blythe(?) stood here for a while looking upwards. There was an open window far above.

The main bar. Dark and 19th-century looking. On one side was a piano(?) with music propped up on it splashed with blood. On top was a newspaper from 12 February 1829. Here, Loveday tried to get a drink while Cassian taunted her and the minstrel played.

The second (temporary) bar. Adjacent to the outside courtyard, I think? One character paused in a sort of conservatory-esque area here for a moment.

The room adjoining the music hall with a piano in the centre. Around the walls were all sorts of fittings – mirrors, seats, strange mannequins, ropes. Quite a lot went on in here. E.g. Blythe and Cresswell argued about whether vampires were the superior species or horrendous monsters.

The bedroom, containing a four-poster bed and fireplace. Generally Victorian-looking. Had a table and chairs at one side, with a chess board on the table, and framed pictures on the walls. Here, Loveday channelled Cresswell's wife for a second time at his insistence.

The dressing-room. A smallish room, on the first floor(?). Contained mirrors, cabinets of drawers etc. Blythe paused for a while here.

The bathroom. Second floor? Smallish. Had mirrored cabinets. Cresswell paused briefly here.

The room right up at the top with an altar and cupboard. Small again. I did not see anything happen here, but Debi reported that Cresswell(? or Blythe?) performed a summoning at the altar here.


The closing scene

Carmilla has gathered the victims together for her ritual. The three humans are tied up on the stage, Loveday especially screaming and protesting. Blythe tries to demand his promised immortality, but Gorgo slits his throat and drags him out. Elodie tries to argue against being included in the ritual, saying that her vampire life has hardly begun and there are others whom Carmilla could use instead. Carmilla tells her she won’t die entirely – just lie dormant for a long time before awakening again. Mara does not think the ritual is a good idea at all. Cassian tries to kill Elodie, can’t bring himself to, tries again from behind until she challenges him to look her in the face, and finally succeeds. Cresswell and St. Clair are also killed quite quickly: the former actively wants it, and the latter is too broken to resist. Loveday is the last to be killed by Cassian. Before he does it, she tries to escape by demanding that he let her die with her hands beside her sides rather than tied up, and taking the opportunity to pull some kind of weapon from her pocket when he unties her. Once she has had her throat cut, she hangs from her ties for a few moments while lightning flashes, and then raises her head, speaking in the voice of Abalon again, and comes down from the stage where she kills Carmilla, ending the story and the show.


What I actually thought of it all

In essence, I absolutely loved it. A huge amount of thought must have gone into constructing it all so that the different scenes fitted together effectively, with characters coming in and out of each other's storylines at the right times, even from completely different ends of the building, and all of the disparate parts adding up to a coherent whole no matter how the audience experienced it. The set-dressing was particularly wonderful. I wish I could have had the chance to walk around it all without the story unfolding at the same time, so that I could scrutinise every single detail at my leisure, but then again I certainly had more control over what I was looking at than is the case when watching a film or play, in that I could go into any room I chose, stand wherever I liked it in and look at whatever I liked while the action went on. I could sit on one divan while Mara was bewitching St Clair on another, feeling the tickly softness of the white animal fur draped over it between my fingers, or peer closely at the satyr-herm in the graveyard which made me think a lot of The Marble Faun. It was very exciting.

Layering the story on top of all of that really did feel immersive, as though I were standing inside the world of a Hammer film. I'm sure regular readers will realise how amazing that was for me! The story really did feel Hammer-ish, too - suitably gothic in content and atmosphere, and with nice little nods to their back-catalogue such as Carmilla being the last of the Karnsteins. The characters themselves seemed well-defined, with just the right amount of back-story and conflict between them for the audience to take in across the two hours of the show, and the acting solid throughout: sometimes (necessarily) a bit projecty and theatrical, especially in the larger scenes, but impressively naturalistic and intimate when the smaller scenes allowed the scope for it as well. I think a lot of credit also belongs to the behind-the-scenes team handling the music, lighting etc. in each room, and indeed quietly staffing the corridors to make sure people did not get too lost or confused or wander into places they weren't supposed to go.

It looks like the production has been a success: it's certainly garnered lots of media coverage, the performance we attended looked to be sold out, and the official production page is currently bearing a banner proclaiming that the initial run has been extended for an extra week. The fact that it is presented not just as a play called The Soulless Ones, but as an individual production by 'Hammer House Of Horror Live' also rather strongly suggests that they are hoping they will be in a position to do more. Certainly, I will be keeping my eye out for further productions, and strongly urge any fans of Hammer, gothic horror or immersive theatre experiences to catch this one while you still can.


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Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
huskyteer
Oct. 22nd, 2017 06:25 pm (UTC)
This sounds so much fun! (I'm unlikely to go so I spoilered myself.)
strange_complex
Oct. 22nd, 2017 08:36 pm (UTC)
It was cool. I was definitely impressed by the possibilities of the format, above and beyond this particular story.
huskyteer
Oct. 22nd, 2017 08:43 pm (UTC)
I'm always impressed by that kind of tight plotting, too.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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