Night of the Demon, released in 1957 and re-edited for the American market where it was known as Curse of the Demon, is one of the most celebrated of British films, well acted, understated, pensive, beautifully filmed in luminous, crisp black and white, creating a sense of unease and genuine horror as it unfolds, yet in an age where commercial channels believe monochrome to be anathema to audiences it is perhaps now best known as either a rhyming couplet in The Rocky Horror Show or the source of the opening dialogue in Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love – “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!”
Thus it is to be applauded that the performers of Box Tale Soup, Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers, have revisited Casting the Runes, the 1911 short story by M R James, regarded as the originator of the “antiquarian ghost story,” taking aspects of both the source prose and the filmed adaptation from half a century later for their minimalist theatrical production, the blank stage filled with little more than a standing door, a coat stand and ominous music as the performers enter with words stitched into their costumes, a pocket of verse, a tie of prose, appropriate to the piece as James’s story is about the power of words.
Professor Edward Dunning, a lecturer on supernatural mythology, believes in proper scientific examination, the rational explanation. Regarding those who claim to have contact with a world beyond as “charlatans and hoaxers,” he states in his lecture that telekinesis is carried out with fishing wire and magnets before warning that “there is always someone willing to take advantage of the desperate and gullible.”
Approached by Rebecca Harrington, he is dismissive of her claims that the death of her brother John Harrington was connected with the supernatural; an academic like Dunning, he had publicly ridiculed the History of Witchcraft written by Karswell, a man convinced of the truth of alchemy, but an apparently chance encounter with Karswell while conducting research at the library is followed by a disturbing hallucination on his commute home.
With bare sets and props, the creation of a train journey is a reminder of the power of live theatre to create the simplest of illusions when an audience are willing to be led; the tricks are the basic stage conjuring of concealment and misdirection, but Karswell himself is omnipresent, sinister and lurking, menacing yet wordless. Intellectually, Dunning knows the threat is nothing more than his own subconscious, a suggestion placed by Karswell playing out in his mind, yet his rational mind is unable to explain the picture of a man on a lonely moonlit path, pursued by a shadowy figure who draws closer every time he looks upon it.
With the scene breaks conducted in a ritualised fashion as befits the theme of the piece an increasing tempo would be beneficial as Karswell’s deadline approaches, but as the play progresses under the hot spotlights and Byrne’s tattooed arms and back are revealed under his white shirt it is as though the cursed runes have already crawled under his skin. If the show lacks sufficient dread to truly become effective, it is undermined not by any inherent weakness in the production or a lack of imagination on the part of Byrne or Christophers but by their inability to make the space their own to create the vital atmosphere. With only mere minutes preparation before each performance in what is effectively a dead space shared with numerous other shows on a daily basis, that they have achieved so much with so little is a testament to their ability and the strength of James’ original story.
Casting the Runes continues until Saturday 23rd August