If the Piccadilly line journey to Finsbury Park to reach the Park Theatre is nightmarish enough, more hellfire is in store in The Screwtape Letters. The set, or at least its background, is gruesome enough in this theatrical adaptation of the CS Lewis book. I don’t think I’ve seen quite a macabre backdrop since the 2013 West End run of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and that play was, in effect, a parody of the rise of the Third Reich. Further, the said hideous backdrop was only revealed at the end – here, it’s on display as the audience files in and is never covered up even when the audience is departing.
This production is sponsored by the Fellowship for Performing Arts, an organisation has as its core objective “presenting theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience”. This is quite a task and a challenge, given how incredibly bland Christian theatre can be. This show is, on balance, better than many a religious-themed play, and is at least multi-dimensional: being set in Hell, it is deliberately difficult to believe whether anything being said could or should be taken at face value. Elements of the narrative have some applicability to real-life on Planet Earth.
What begins as inventive staging in the sending and receiving of letters soon outlasts its welcome, as there are simply so many of them. The costumes, I must say, are exquisite. Screwtape (Max McLean) is every bit the figure of authority with imps, so to speak, under his command, while Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight) is kitted out well too. I originally had more to say about her costume, but I’m afraid I found myself wading too deep in spoiler territory, so I am compelled to leave it at that. I can imagine, nonetheless, that feminist critics will not respond kindly to the male character giving orders and instructions while the lady counterpart must slither, physically and metaphorically, subserviently, with no lines of her own to speak. It’s a commendably physical performance, though.
As far as the story goes, there are, after the initial surprise to those unfamiliar with the book that ‘Our Father’ in this context actually means the Devil and ‘the Enemy’ is God, no major surprises. Good triumphs over evil in the end, and in that sense the story isn’t unlike, say, the Harry Potter series. The exposition of what could pass for demonic tactics and forward planning was intriguing, though the liberal use of terms such as ‘repentance’ and ‘sin’ might have gone over the heads of those without at least some familiarity with religious instruction.
This is a mostly solidly – dare I say it – faithful – rendering of the original book. I say ‘mostly’, as a reference to popular music superstar Madonna, and another one regarding terrorism as it is commonly understood in the post-9/11 era, were clearly not in Lewis’ text, though apparently his estate, The CS Lewis Company Ltd, had permitted these relatively negligible additions. There was, I think, a missed opportunity to have one or two of the earlier scenes acted out, rather than an over-dependence on mere descriptions. When some action did finally occur, the final third half-hour showed how brilliantly dramatic the two preceding ones could have been.
Elements in the evening’s proceedings are somewhat thought-provoking. Discussions on the subjects of marriage and the paradox of humility were of interest. For the most part, however, one is better off reading the CS Lewis book – or even the New Testament.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Fellowship for Performing Arts in Association with Park Theatre present the UK Premiere of
C.S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis Adapted for the Stage by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske
A masterpiece of satire, C.S. Lewis’ classic novel has entertained and enlightened readers worldwide with its sly and ironic portrayal of human life and foibles from the vantage point of Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to ‘Our Father Below’.
Set in an eerily stylish office in Hell, Screwtape schemes meticulously with his novice demon nephew, Wormwood, who has been put in charge of securing the damnation of an ordinary young man on earth.
Wildly comic, deadly serious and strikingly original, this stage adaptation was a smash hit in New York and now brings its morally inverted universe to the Park Theatre as the European premiere of this deliciously devilish production.
Plays until: 7 Jan 2017