Went to Belsay Hall on Saturday, Sunday and Monday evenings to hear Robert Lloyd Parry perform six ghost stories by M.R. James. As a friend remarked when I first attended a Nunkie Theatre production last year at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, this is as close as you can get to hearing Monty James himself read his stories. Or is it? As another friend remarked last night, James may not have been such a good reader of his own work.
Anyway, the point is that Belsay Hall is, in theory, the ideal place for ghost story readings, but in fact is somewhat deficient as a setting. This is because the hall is a fine old house, but is completely unfurnished, the interior having been gutted a long time ago. So RLP performed in the library before a fireplace, but there were no books, no fire, and indeed no carpet, just a few rows of wooden seats arranged in semicircles. Given this far from ideal atmosphere, he did extremely well.
The whole long weekend was billed as The M.R. James Trilogy, a slight misnomer as in fact six stories were on offer. The first two, 'Canon Alberic's Scrap Book' and 'The Mezzotint' are available on DVD, as are the last two - 'A Warning to the Curious' and 'Lost Hearts'. The middle two stories, performed on Sunday (my birthday, as it happened) were ''Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad'' and 'The Ash-Tree'. The stories are paired up nicely, you'll notice - 'The Mezzotint' is a sort of sequel to 'Canon Alberic...'; 'Warning' and 'Lost Hearts' are both about ancient rituals and the violence in them has a great immediacy; in ''Oh Whistle...' and 'The Ash-Tree' both deal (more or less) with black magic within a traditional framework - that of witchcraft in the latter, and the alleged antics of the Knights Templar in the latter.
These are all first-rate stories in their own right - all of them play well because they combine the Jamesian ingredients of gentle humour, telling detail, neat little sketches of place and persons, and some truly nasty revelations. RLP gave it the Full Monty (so to speak) with the death scene in 'The Ash-Tree' and poor Paxton's mental turmoil in 'Warning'. Audience members who didn't know what was coming did indeed jump in their seats at some key moments.
I think my friend Mike and I were the only ones to go to all three shows. Indeed, each night's 'crowd' (at most thirty people, perhaps) was a little different. Thus on Sunday there were a couple of girls in Hallowe'en gear, complete with green make-up. The first show attracted - I think - a more literary gang, while the actual Hallowe'en performance was quite mixed. I wondered, as always, whether people had come expecting horror stories with nice simple shocks, and how many were familiar with the writings of Dr James?
The main problem with a performance in a large-ish unfurnished room is the echo. RLP's approach to the stories is 'chatty' - he takes on the role of the scholarly author who is telling a story to a group of friends, and quite emphatically not reading (as MRJ did). The bookless library's acoustics sometimes made the stories hard to follow - I definitely heard the green-faced girls having the plot of the 'Ash-Tree' explained to them by their mother, and it is quite a straightforward plot.
That said, RLP has a remarkable presence and is tremendously convincing in character. He is a time-traveller from the Edwardian era, offering the modern audience a glimpse of an era that might not have been more civilized as a whole, but which undeniably valued the quiet pleasures of a l;iterate civilization more than we can. But don't take my word for anything - get yourself to a Nunkie production and find out for yourself. Here's a brief sample: