Better the devil you know
By Philip Edwards
C.S.Lewis is well known today for his series of seven novels for children Chronicles of Narnia, especially since some of the books have been made into very successful movies. But before that. he came to fame with his classic satirical masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, first published in February 1942.
Hailey McQueen (director, producer and writer) has brilliantly adapted the “Letters” to the stage in what is a most entertaining and engaging production. As a longtime lover of all of C.S.Lewis’ works, I was both greatly looking forward to this play and wondering how a series of letters could be made into a full-scale production. I was not disappointed. McQueen has not only presented the wonderful insights into human nature that Lewis is famous for, but she has managed to inject humour and fun into what could have been rather dry if handled differently. From the very outset the audience was captivated and enthusiastic.
The show opens with the demon Screwtape (Yannick Lawry) assisted by Toadpipe a lesser devil (George Zhao), addressing a gathering of junior tempters in Hell at the annual dinner of the Tempter’s Training College for Young Devils. This is part of a speech taken from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, Lewis’ 1959 sequel to the Letters which first appeared as an essay in the Saturday Evening Post.This was a clever move by McQueen as it serves to introduce the role of Screwtape as a master Tempter whose job is to guide his nephew, Wormwood, in his task of tempting a young man who is in danger of becoming a Christian.
From then on Screwtape dictates letters, addressed to Wormwood, via Toadpipe which are then sent by some fiendish mailing system (wonderful sound and lighting effects), whereupon a reply is received which prompts another letter. The process appears quite simple, but the added humorous antics of the somewhat dimwitted Toadpipe ensure that there is never a dull moment.
Lawry and Zhao are the only actors on stage, and they are both there for the entire 80-90 minutes of the performance without a break. Lawry delivers the text of the letters with great skill and fluency. His performance is flawless and I was awed by the dedication that was required to memorise practically the whole book. Occasionally Screwtape allows Toadpipe (Zhao) to present a section of his letter to Wormwood, sometimes as a blackboard lecture,which has the whole audience laughing at full volume. Screwtape’s frustration with Toadpipe and his antics results in some quite violent treatment of the poor creature which are staged beautifully (at one point Toadpipe’s head is jammed in a stool) and provide a dynamic relief to the dictation phases of the presentation. Toadpipe is clearly bored by his miserable existence and does a variety of crazy stunts to break the monotony of his life of servitude. Zhao excels in this role and is a delight to the whole audience.
The theatre was packed with people of all ages from twenty-something to eighty-something and we were completely engaged the whole time. The whole production team is to be congratulated on a memorable and captivating show that has brought the brilliant wit and insights of C.S.Lewis to the stage and to even greater accessibility for a modern generation.
The music, sound and light effects when each letter is delivered are wonderful. Adam Jones (music and sound design) and Ben Anshaw (lighting design) are to be commended, for what they did fitted the mood perfectly. I particularly liked the little tune that tied the production together: it had the right balance of quirkiness and lightheartedness that kept the show from being a heavy “lecture”-type of production that could easily have occurred when presenting a series of letters.
If I have any complaint it would be that the season is not long enough. I recommend that you do all that you can to get to see it before it ends this weekend. Forget the Christmas shopping. This is more important.
(If you do miss it in Melbourne it is moving to Canberra next week. That’s not too far to drive!)
The Screwtape Letters is now on at The Loft Theatre, Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran until Saturday 17th December 2016. Bookings: Ph. 03 8290 7000. More information at: www.chapeloffchapel.com.au