A CREEPY GENTLENESS
I found this maverick pair, “Box Tale Soup” out in the boondocks last fringe: Antonia Christophers and noel Byrne, creating a wonderful Northanger Abbey out of cardboard suitcases, paper props and puppetry. I wrote ‘wonderful’ and I hope it helped. Anyway, they are still touring that delicate, gentle Austen – one of the best and truest treatments, bar none, in any dramatic medium – but this year up on the Mile they fill their little space with something different. There are fewer puppets – though one sudden and very scaring one – and a creepier, more oblique piece of storytelling. They still have their trademark costumes and solemnity: charming ties, facings and belts made of bookprint, indicating a literary rather than wholly naturalistic mood. All props are paper, deliberately simple, indicating that this is literature made visible.
The playlet’s story is typical of its author M. R. James: a sceptical exposer of occultism , played by Byrne, tangles with something dark and powerful and a beautiful girl who warns him of its threat (Christophers plays several characters with the minimum of fuss and open changes). The style is elegant. Ritualistic, even: they create an odd magic of attentiveness in the audience with deliberate, quiet moves, a solemnity: occasionally they briefly leave character to sing (the fine score is by Dan Melrose) a couple of those frightening lines from the Ancient Mariner about the man who “turns no more his head / because he knows a frightful fiend /doth close behind him tread”.
This simplicity builds to something really odd and alarming: James’ “Who is this who is coming” genuinely arouses the terror of myth. Often it is more like reading, alone, than watching a show. And seeing them handle costumes and props reinforces what M.R.James wanted: “Let us be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently until it holds the stage.”