I’ve never been to Ballarat’s Kryal Castle before, though I’d heard of it. People confessed to having visited in their childhood, often with subtext of ‘I can’t believe that cheesy old place is still operating!’ In fact, the whole medieval-castle-in-rural-Victoria theme park has been closed for a while. It’s been refurbished with lavish attention, and on 2 March 2013, it flung open its drawbridge once more.
It’s a funny thing about theme parks. They can work really well, or they can fall really flat. I half expected this to be one of those latter occasions, but I hadn’t really counted on an essential part of the redevelopment of Kryal Castle.
It was built by storytellers.
There are lots of archetypes in fantasy fiction, especially those in faux-medieval settings. There are knights and ladies, kings and princesses, dragons and dragon slayers, wizards and witches. There are taverns and the quaffing of ale, tournaments where favours are won, and dungeons where dark deeds are committed.
But what might be a tad predictable or shallow in a complex novel of medieval fantasy is just the ticket for creating a framework for a theme park. Easily recognisable archetypes instantly allow the visitor, of any age or preferred genre, to know where they are and how to respond.
The visitor enters Kryal Castle by walking past an animatronic dragon, Red Ruff, who responds to proximity. Then you walk through a series of tunnels, while carvings, chained dragons and Galadriel-esque holographic princesses tell the sad story of the fall of Kryal Castle. About the stolen dragon eggs, and the children who were stolen in return, and how the kingdom suffered as a result.
By the time you emerge into the centre of the castle, you’re set: immersed in the building of this fantasy world. You don’t have to follow the story, but elements of it are scattered all around as you explore.
The origin story is retold a few times a day in the Jester’s Theatre, where the performers and puppets interact with young audience members to discover the moral of the tale. You can visit the dragon egg garden, or see swords and dragon eggs in the Knight’s Tower. There’s a lot to look at.
Kryal isn’t all about staring at exhibits, though – far from it. It’s storytelling, but it’s street theatre too, so there are plenty of opportunities to be interactive with the story, including a maze, a playground, facepainting, and other activities timed throughout the day. Watching three little girls all trying to pull a sword from a stone was pretty damned adorable. Watching the teenagers tie their friends to the rack or the shutting them in the stocks was fairly gratifying as well.
In the afternoon, I saw knights on the tourney field teaching archery to little kids, and I sincerely hope that at least one them grows up to be either Hawkeye of the Avengers or Merida from Brave. The playing field also regularly has knights showing off their swordsmanship, and horsemanship too, with jousting knights.
There was a real A Knight’s Tale atmosphere about the knights on the field, with the usual town crier (honestly, it’s his regular job, I asked) doing the film’s role of Chaucer while contemporary-sounding, medieval-inspired choral music filled the stands. The audience learned to shout HUZZAH! with enthusiasm while riders attempted to capture rings and hit targets with sword and lance, and later rode at each other with lances that shattered on impact with armour. The setting might have been a story, but the skills were real, which made it enormously satisfying to watch.
I had a long talk with one of the knights, Riggsy (above, in the yellow), about what it took to train a horse to jousting (first, take one fairly unflappable horse; next, train it to do things that don’t come naturally to a horse, like running straight at another horse; thirdly, work out how to ride without having much dexterity in your battle-armoured hands and body; fourthly, try not to fall off, because that bloody hurts).
Riggsy’s passion for his horse, his obvious abilities with weapons and animal, and the fun he clearly has on the field (along with the demonstration of very real skill by both knights) lent the whole thing the frisson of authenticity that makes Kryal work so well. The people working here seem to be having a damned good time, and are happily participating in the theatrical storytelling of the basic concept of this fantasy castle.
That’s the key to Kryal Castle – it’s not trying to be a theme park about medieval history. It’s a theme park about fantasy and storytelling. Your inner six year old and outer proper grown up can both respond to an atmosphere that echoes stories like A Knight’s Tale, the Narnia books, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, not to mention every medieval-esque fantasy you’ve ever read. It speaks to the imagination, pitching the balance of the fictional and the authentic just right.
Speaking of having a frisson of authenticity, nobody wants their torture chamber exhibit to be too authentic, but you don’t want a bunch of department store fashion dummies with chipped paint to be propped up with their bland, buy-this-nice-suit faces on either. Kryal Castle has managed to walk that line between the theatrical and the authentic with a really very creepy two-part dungeon.
On the ground floor, a series of static displays of various torture devices leaves it up to the explanatory text combined with some instruments and the occasional gruesome dummy to build a mental image of how horrible punishment could be. However, a tight spiral staircase (headed by a warning that it’s not for the under 12s) leads down to twisting corridors filled with light, shadow and sound. Proximity technology allows the lighting and soundscapes to be timed for the best effect, and I found (to my embarrassment) that not all the shrieks came from the recordings…
Some kids went through it with ghoulish enthusiasm. I enjoyed it immensely too, but I found the sounds of ravens interrupted while pecking at the dead and the meaty thunk of a beheading profoundly unsettling as well. So I went in, expecting cheesy and ridiculous faux-menacing tableaux, and emerged feeling rather grateful for the sunshine.
And my husband, who openly laughed at me being a scaredy cat, especially considering I write horror?
When he went through on his own, it gave him the collywobbles as well.
Well played, Kryal Castle, well played.
Disclosure: Narrelle travelled to Ballarat dined out magnificently at Jackson’s and Co, Kryal Castle and The Forge courtesy of Ballarat Regional Tourism.
Kryal Castle is open from 10.00am until 5.00pm every day of the year (except Christmas Day), including public holidays.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.