Last night I had the pleasure of attending another performance by Robert Lloyd Parry of Nunkie Theatre fame, who has been visiting the Lit and Phil in Newcastle for a good few years now. (All credit to art historian, author, and all round genre expert Dr Gail-Nina Anderson for luring him up North in the first place.)
As I've stressed before, what Robert Lloyd Parry gives his audience is a performance based on his interpretation of the fiction of M.R. James, not a mere reading. In this latest touring show he offers one undisputed classic and one rather neglected tale - 'Casting the Runes' (1911) and 'The Residence at Whitminster' (1919).
'Casting the Runes' is arguably the best-know Jamesian ghost story - and there's no ghost in it. I don't think anyone in the very appreciative audience minded too much! As always, hearing a familiar tale 're-discovered' brought home how effective the central idea is, and the strength of individual scenes. But Parry's omission of some ingredients - notably the chirpy Cockney tram crew - helped focus the narrative on the true horror of Dunning's situation. There are still touches of humour, of course, but it is a dark tale and I think the performance rightly stressed this.
Similarly in 'The Residence at Whitminster' the core of the story is the cruel and ultimately self-destructive mischief of Lord Saul, and this provides the centre of gravity of the performance. As so often happens, James gives no clear reason for Saul's dabbling in the dark arts, so we are left to assume that he is a vain and foolish adolescent. I was surprised that this story was chosen, but it provided a very effective second half. It's a very visual tale and the historical details of Dr Ashton's world came across vividly. The things seen by Mary Oldys in the 'scrying glass', a pivotal scene, might well have haunted the dreams of some audience members.
One thing that struck me during the show is how effectively James takes us back to the world of childhood. Games, pranks, and persecution prevail, while quite arbitrary, mysterious rules always apply. A child's world is devoid of adult defences against chaos and fear - the law, faith, and rationality offer precarious refuge when we're young. Cross a line and you're 'It'.
And that's another great virtue of a Nunkie Theatre performance. Not only do you get an entertaining evening in the ghostly (and scholarly) world of M.R. James, you find yourself re-assessing familiar stories in the light of Robert Lloyd Parry's winning adaptations.