Before the publication of his Chronicles of Narnia it was a less coded and allegorical set of writings that made C.S. Lewis an international name. The directly spiritual, and yet thoroughly twisted, The Screwtape Letters were C.S. Lewis’s breakout hit, meditating on the nature of faith, sin, temptation and consciousness, eschewing the heavenly perspective and instead indulging in a a more hellish outlook.
Cameron Anderson’s set design in the Park 200 is fantastically hellish, with the back wall of the space panelled with skulls and bones, a high ladder narrowing towards the ceiling and a red leather armchair and footstool sitting on a neatly patterned pavement of more bones, some of which are removed and replace during the course of the action. Hieronymus Bosch figures writhing in agony wouldn’t look out of place.
Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske’s adaptation is a straightforward one – a condensed version of the short sequel Screwtape Proposes a Toast introduces the character of His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape in monologue, and the key premises of the work are laid out: that devils feast on human souls, that the depravity of their sins is a culinary delight, and that the most fearful thing is that souls find their way to “The Enemy” – i.e. God.
As we transition into the Letters themselves, the epistolary form becomes a series of monologues, with inferred replies from Screwtape’s ‘junior tempter’ nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape advises his nephew on tempting his ‘patient’, making much of the gradual path away from faith, using prejudices and the annoyances of ‘real life’ to avoid head-on thought about spiritual things, where the Enemy might have the upper hand. That the receive-a-letter, compose-a-response format doesn’t grow too stale is a testament to the strength of Lewis’ original text and the filleting by McLean and Fiskewhich carves a satisfying throughline, but a snake-like voice in my ear still suggests that seeing the hapless Wormwood interact with his austere uncle onstage would be a delightful, even if a considerably freer adaptation would be required.
The best addition to the text is the onstage appearance of a lowly devil called Toadpipe, played by Karen Eleanor Wight, face blood-red, in an almost steampunk scaled costume by Michael Bevins and uttering only animalistic cries as she attends to Screwtape, reacting to his tirades as the senior devil dictates his missives to her. She playacts like characters mentioned by Screwtape, reacts with horror at a mention of the Enemy’s putative ‘love’ for ‘the hairless bipeds he has created’, and her interjection and embellishments of Screwtape’s speeches could be used even further.
Max McLean – performer, co-adaptor and director – makes a suitably serpentine, effete devil in contrast to his inarticulate assistant, enjoying every word of Screwtape’s perverse logic.
Note that word – ‘perverse’. What is being perverted? A classically Protestant view of spiritual reality. Because the spiritual conflict is total – a soul is either ‘ours’ or ‘theirs’, and all worldly goings-on, from familial frustrations to world wars, are distractions from this cosmic tug-of-war.
The Screwtape Letters needs an audience to step into this reality, to engage with its satirical humour and its potential meanings. It’s easy enough for most: either they are already keen to work on this plane, or it is a small disbelief to suspend. Even when this organizing principle doesn’t necessarily map onto non-religious, or even non-Protestant worldviews, Lewis nevertheless compellingly dramatises something that’s very familiar – individuals procrastinating, avoiding and slipping from their intended actions and away from what they consider really important.
For Lewis the thing that typified distraction was 20th century Britain’s bureaucracy, and his Hell resembles a faceless hierarchical secret police. Something of this emerges in this production as Screwtape’s nephew attempts to blackmail his uncle following some of his unguarded remarks, and we realise that Screwtape’s apparent mastery of his world disguises those upper (or should that be lower?) echelons that would cheerfully turn on him.
But rather than look for what in the modern world might be a useful referent for a bureaucratic or predatory hell, this production presented by US production company Fellowship for Performing Arts (created to engage a diverse audience with theatre from a Christian worldview) chooses a more familiar presentation of Hell, and by the end of this 90min production, Anderson’s impressive fire-and-brimstone-and-gnashing-of-teeth design seems a little disconnected from the text. The decorated military blazer Screwtape adorns for his original toast might slyly suggest that he is guilty of the kind of political spin that accompanies a coup, but it’s a halting half-gesture, quickly dismissed for a velvety smoking jacket that seems to be unthinkingly rehashing familiar lascivious depictions of Satan rather than tapping into the specificity of Screwtape as an executive management-level Beelzebub.
The Screwtape Letters are on until 7th January 2017 at the Park Theatre. Click here for more details.