This winter, our new production is The Demon Lover, the third in director Richard Spaul’s series of spine-chilling tales performed in the Leper Chapel. Here he talks about the show.
Why is the idea of ‘a demon’ so compelling to us – even though, given the decline of religion, we may think there is no such thing?
Well, literally I would have to agree that there probably aren’t demons. Yet they do seem to loom larger than ever in our minds.
The stories I perform in this show are about demons – which are not the same as devils. Demons ‘get in’ – demonic possession, for instance, is a powerful phenomenon. I suppose demons are symbolised psychic forces, ‘getting in’ to people’s apparently safe and ordered lives; maybe the more apparently safe people seem to be in their lives, the more that kind of possession is to be feared. It does seem a compelling, and indeed entertaining, subject to deal with.
You’ve written that “demons come in surprising forms”. What forms can demons take? Do you feel we need to protect ourselves against them?
In the medieval story Demon Lover – of which there are several folk versions, one of which I will be singing – the wife is married to a man who is nice, good, but ordinary. She succumbs to a demon lover who tempts her with riches, and seems to my mind to have a sexual charge that her legitimate spouse lacks.
In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover, a woman receives a letter from her fiancé, reported killed in a war nearly twenty-five years before, saying he will meet her as arranged. In Gabriel-Ernest, the demon is a naked, dark, posh boy of 16 who invades the protagonist’s life, a symbol of unspoken longing. In The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, The Foxy Gentleman seems to offer Jemima a way to fulfil her dreams – but in fact plans to roast her.
In these stories, demons can’t actually be protected against because they’re intimately linked to the protagonists’ desires.
The format and venue – tales and songs interwoven and presented in a spooky setting. Why?
I’ve been working on this format for two previous shows and feel there is much more to develop and explore in it. For example, the songs provide breaks between the tales but also shed an indirect and ambiguous light on them.
Important for me is the Voice of each tale. What is the narrative voice? Who is the narrator – not necessarily a named character. Plus, the singing Voice can be very powerfully channelled and characterised but in a rather different way. I love the contrast and also the connection between the speaking voice and the singing voice.
Why have you called The Demon Lover one of the best stories ever?
It explores most powerfully the ghostly consequences of a ‘crack’ in a person’s life. Here, the crack is The Blitz; a very conventional woman has abandoned her Kensington home because of the bombing, then she returns to her house to collect some stuff. It smells funny. It’s uncannily empty of familiar things and people, and this creates a ‘crack’ for the ghost of her dead fiancé – or a demon in his shape – to contact her and abduct her. There’s a powerful idea of haunting there, that demons appear when our familiar surroundings are disrupted.
One thing I love about the story, and about much of Bowen’s work, is the tingling, suggestive way she uses words, their rhythms and textures. The effect is a horrible sense of unease which grows on the reader without their being able to quite say how it’s happening. It makes for an acting challenge, and is one reason to perform these stories rather than having people just read them. The ambiguity that pervades the tale – basically that we’re not just in a shuttered house in bombed-out London but in the antechamber of Hell – is something I’ve become sensitive to while learning it. But the audience only hears the story once, so I’ve got to convey as much of its depth as possible in one performance.
It has been a great adventure to perform such a masterpiece from a writer who has not received quite the recognition that she deserves. I hope the audience feel the same way as I do.
What makes Saki’s Gabriel-Ernest such an unsettling narrative?
I read his books when I was a teenager – fascinated by the uncanny name as much as anything else. I then read most of his work in preparation for this show.
Saki was a gay man at a time when being ‘homosocial’ was very much the norm – for example in men’s clubs and the army. Yet being actively homosexual was illegal, anathema to Edwardian morals. Saki sought out a homosocial world so urgently that he signed up for the army when he was much too old and got killed on the Somme.
He has an acid, brittle, ironic narrative voice, describing his world of ‘Sloane’ women and ‘Hooray Henry’ men. But he also has a unique ability to couple that with the most shocking and incongruous eruptions either of horrific violence – in one of his most famous stories, Sredni Vashtar, a teenage boy’s aunt gets killed by his pet polecat – or as in Gabriel-Ernest, of an eruption of the supernatural. His work is much more powerful as a result of this incongruity. It’s amazing stuff.
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck is, surely, a children’s tale. Yet you’ve included it. Why?
Yes, Jemima Puddle-duck is a children’s tale, and like many people of my generation and earlier, I came across it when I was very young indeed. And I’m very attached to it.
But in this performance I’m going to subject the story to a bit of violence, for which I hope I can forgive myself; it’s a risk and an experiment. My hunch is that under apparently childish and reassuring tales there is often real menace – and children do perceive this.
In Jemima Puddle-duck, the main character is what would now be called a vulnerable adult – ‘simpleton’ is Beatrix Potter’s term – who is not well-treated in her home environment, not allowed to raise her own eggs. She flees, seeking independence, but finds herself in the hands of a calculating abuser. There are parallels with the author; it appears Beatrix Potter was thwarted by her parents as regards her own love-life.
So, there are often hidden depths in this story. And I’m excited at the idea of trying to bring out something powerful, serious, indeed frightening from material that might understandably be regarded as safe, even twee. The way I will be doing it, I promise you, it’s not for kids!
Do you feel your performance is an entertainment or a cautionary warning? Or something else entirely…
It’s an entertainment of course. I hope people will find it entertaining, some of it hopefully funny. Yet the idea of entertainment has now become yoked to an idea of triviality or disposability and I hope it won’t be that.
Plus, a crucial aspect of all insitu:’s work is the more serious idea of trying to create a powerful atmosphere and a suggestive structure, so the audience has a chance to think and feel their way quite deeply and with complexity into whatever the material might be.
No it’s not a cautionary warning. Don’t hang out with polite gentlemen who are obviously foxes, werewolves and demons would be the cautionary side of it. And the audience probably know that already!