Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Judge’s Robe: A Victorian Ghost Story

It was a dark and stormy night, appropriate weather as we gathered in the cosy setting of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum to listen to ‘M. Le Frenu’ – French Curator of the Curious and collector of “tainted” objects – tell us his most curious, and spine tingling, tale. The season was appropriate as well, Christmas being the traditional time for such scares. This one wasn’t from the quill of Dickens, the author most associated with the season of good fear, even though his forthcoming bicentenary would have added topicality, but instead from J Sheridan Le Fanu, as the thinly-disguised name of the narrator indicated.

Michelle Golder’s play was adapted from his 1853 story An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street, though the original’s location has been switched from Dublin to Cambridge. The original’s protagonist Richard becomes Bertie (or Albert) and the hanging judge is transformed from Horrocks to Hobbes. Aungier Street is now, we discover, Castle Street. Rather than a straight retelling of Le Fanu’s rather dense text, the story has been opened up to range historically from the judge’s time, the French Revolution, to the present in 1884, with rather more plot than in Le Fanu’s narrative. There is a neat arc in adapting the story for the stage because Richard states at the beginning of Aungier Street that he has told the tale orally many times, and is only now committing it to paper. Michelle has reinstated it to its proper form, told to eager listeners, because as Le Fanu says in the story: “pen, ink, and paper are cold vehicles for the marvellous.”

This was (apart from one non-speaking but extremely effective role) a one-man show, with Robert Jezek, putting on a plausible accent, playing the part of the nervous narrator, back at the scene of a horrendous experience he had had as a Cambridge student. The conceit is that M. Le Frenu has called together investigators from the newly-formed Society for Psychical Research in order to recount that misadventure, hence the audience (not the first time that the SPR has featured in a Golder play; in 2009 it had a role in her Hayton on Homicide, which starred Jezek as George Hayton). It turns out that the haunted building of his story is – quelle horreur! – the one in which we are seated! And the echoes of the dark deeds of the past have not faded, by a long way. Cue creepy sound effects, which certainly made the less than intrepid SPR investigators present jump, as our host gradually unravelled before our eyes.

In style the performance was reminiscent of the similar treatment, in character, which Robert Lloyd Parry has given to M R James’s stories, and the upstairs room of the Folk Museum is reminiscent of the small Corpus Christi Playroom which has been used by Lloyd Parry (though the museum is rather cheerier). An intimate space, with the edgy Frenchman threatening to tread on the toes of the front row as he relived the trauma, is essential for this type of performance to work well. Last year’s one-man Tales of Terror, presented by The Happiness Patrol, tried something similar with authors roughly of Le Fanu’s vintage (notably James), but fell flat in the larger space of the ADC.

The Folk Museum was perfect, and it would be nice to think that they might put on further productions of this nature in future, a live version of the old BBC Christmas ghost stories. The interval mince pie and punch didn’t hurt either. What my fellow 'SPR investigators' listening to Richard Le Frenu’s story made of his doleful account it was hard to say, but I’m sure we stepped round the shadows lurking in the wind-swept streets of Cambridge with more care than usual as we made our way home.

The Judge’s Robe: A Victorian Ghost Story, 7-9 December, 2011.