This latest DVD from Nunkie is a particular treat for your humble editor, as 'The Ash-Tree' is one of my favourite M.R. James stories. For some reason the hyphen is missing from the titles of the Nunkie production, but otherwise the story is all present and correct. Indeed, on watching the film I was struck by all manner of ideas about the story. Why do so many farmers anxiously seek Mrs Mothersole's acquittal? When exactly did her 'anatomy' make its remarkable journey to the Hall? Do her young ones really 'suck up blood', as there's no obvious evidence in the story that they do anything other than poison their victims?
But that's not for here! No, let's consider the performance. And it's worth noting at once that Robert Lloyd Parry does perform stories. This is an adaptation of 'The Ash-Tree' - Parry is not simply presenting a reading in the presumed manner of the Provost, who used a handwritten script. Performance here means that Parry takes on the persona of a possible M.R. James, and offers a hybrid of the Victorian dramatic monologue with a modern theatrical one man show. The character tells the story from memory, occasionally referring to those old documents so central to much Jamesian pastiche, but which are in fact used quite sparingly - if at all - in the original tales.
Rob Lloyd Parry displays tremendous energy for a man largely confined, by the self-imposed rules of the game, to an easy chair. He also shows great skill in handling the very Jamesian transitions from humour or (apparently) scholarly digression to horror, and of course from past to present tense. He also does a masterly job of tweaking James's original text so as to make it slightly leaner, and more accessible. Thus he inserts a brief digression that explains the 'Sortes Biblicae'. It's so well done that the passage could indeed have been a footnote or digression by James.
Potential problems with plot and character are well-handled. 'The Ash-Tree' is an odd tale, when you think about it, full of ambiguities. And yet at the same time it is intensely visual and matter-of-fact when it comes to certain key moments. James is often portrayed as an author who dealt with sedentary academics yarning over port and pipe, but in fact his tales contain a fair bit of action. I ought to admit that, when it comes to the famous bedroom scene, I could have done without so animated an attempt to convey the sense of movement on and around poor Sir Richard Fell. It seemed to me a bit over the top. But that is a minor quibble, and I'm sure not everyone will agree. In general, the liveliness of the performance suits the material, which is after all an account of a very colourful period of history.
Another difficulty arises because the story has no protagonist - like Mr Dunning or Mr Wraxall - whose travails we can identify with. Instead we have a historical narrative pieced together by the author featuring a number of characters, none of whom is described in any great detail. In other Jamesian tales this is a problem - it drastically undermines 'The Residence at Whitminster'. But here the narrative drive is strong enough to hold things together on the page, and in his adaptation Parry manages to bring the various characters to life in a seemingly effortless way, so that only someone half asleep from heavy port intake would fail to grasp which Fell or Crome we are hearing from at any particular moment. And he also gives the Bishop of Kilmore a slightly more heroic role in the final showdown by the burning tree.
In conclusion, this is a thought-provoking, atmospheric film, confirming Robert Lloyd Parry as M.R. James's unofficial ambassador to the great British public. Order now - makes an ideal Christmas gift for those difficult aunties! Unless, of course, auntie is an arachnophobe.