Sunday, 11 December 2016

Review The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters
by CS Lewis
Adapted for the stage by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske

The Devil's Doublethink

The Screwtape Letters was a resounding first populist literary success for Oxford don and BBC radio personality CS Lewis. Written originally in 1941 for a Christian periodical, this production has Screwtape (Max McLean, also co-writer and director), a senior devil clad in red and gold smoking jacket, displaying the  urbanity of a Varsity don or an eminently clubbable civil servant.

He leans back in a well-worn leather chair after a college dinner and dictates letters to his personal secretary, a scaly creature called Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight).

His job is to instruct his unseen Junior Tempter nephew, Wormwood, an apprentice in devilry, He advises his young relative in the art and science of luring an earth-bound Englishman away from Christianity into the clutches of the devil and hell.

Ominously the Englishman, as if the demons are unable to turn the hapless citizen into a criminal, is turned Soviet-style into a "Patient" with the diabolical duo of uncle and nephew as psychiatrists-gone-wrong, experimenting on the best way to lead him down the Primrose path.

Indeed Lewis, a one-time atheist turned Christian, himself described the Hell portrayed in his book as "the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern". This adaptation brings in some contemporary concerns  and tries to find some relatively modern (but at least one rather clunky) cultural equivalents.

It also adds the scaly creature called Toadpipe, barely mentioned in the book, who acts as Screwtape's scribe, climbing a spiralling ladder to push the letters into a pneumatic tube - a brightly coloured stream of neon light signalling delivery. 

It is tempting to think that Lewis was intent on solely bringing theological arguments in a populist style to a wide audience. The novella and play suck us into a reverse world where Hell is the establishment, the boss Satan is "Our Father Below" and God is only named as "The Enemy".

However, listening carefuly to the fairly faithful stage rendition of this epistolary novella, it dawned on us Lewis in his own way seems to be commenting on the state of the world, including shifting alliances, during World War II. 

Indeed we even picked up resemblances to the later work of another BBC radio personality George Orwell. The theatre programme offers us Lewis's comment that the Screwtape Letters deals with "... the Managerial Age, in a world of 'Admin'" A very Orwellian image, Orwell, like many of his contemporaries, being influenced by James Burnham's analysis The Managerial Revolution.

Orwell also uses the biblical drink wormwood at the end of 1984 and, as in 1984, there may be a touch of the BBC hierarchy as well as an Oxbridge Senior Common Room in Screwtape's quarters. This seems to have been picked up in this production's design decision to add a pneumatic letter tube, commonly used by the BBC at the time and in Orwell's 1984.

Meanwhile devils, we learn, have previously feasted on human souls, but now Hell, like Britain in time of war, is on short rations. And of course, instead of Big Brother, we have Our Father Below, along with a subtle propagandist in Screwtape who advises, "... the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without milestones or signposts".

Yet the propagandist Screwtape also has to negotiate a tricky path through the internal politics of hell with its infernal police and intelligence agency. 

Of course this is all very well for an analysis of the text, but The Screwtape Letters in this case is a stage adaptation.

The play takes place on the larger of the Park Theatre stages, but feels as if  it should be in a more intimate space.

The design by Cameron Anderson subtly uses small paving stones as partial concentric circles  of Hell with skulls and bones piled up in the backdrop reminiscent of the Cambodian and other twentieth century genocides. But, powerful and distressing as they are, these become on stage static symbols.

They are densely packed in, in the same way as the letters and their arguments are packed into the script. The reflections on social change, the intertwining of theology, domestic and international politics and human nature are blunted off the book page in what is essentially, a series of lectures.

While Toadpipe is also tacked on as a symbolic Everyman (and, more rarely, woman) figure as well as amanuensis to provide variation, the action on stage becomes increasingly repetitive rather than gaining in visceral power.

Nevertheless the premise of the story has undoubted power. It even seems surprising to us that early on after publication filmmakers never picked up on The Screwtape Letters as the springboard for a movie, for example, in the style of Powell and Pressburger's later A Matter of Life And Death.

In the meantime, while it might send the curious to read the book, it's a lower end of an amber light for a play where the devil is overloaded with verbal detail. 

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